State may get highway tolls

Drivers in Connecticut may soon face tolls for the first time since the 1980s.

Following a seven-fatality crash at a toll booth in 1983, Connecticut began a complete phase-out of its highway tolls. By 1987, the state was completely toll-free, and it compensated for lost revenues by hiking gasoline taxes. Now, as the state faces severe fiscal pressure and several expensive transportation infrastructure projects, State Rep. Patricia Dillon, D-New Haven, is attempting to bring tolls back to Connecticut roads.

“We have massive needs in transportation,“ Dillon said. “Even if you just look in New Haven … we don’t have enough mass transit, and our roads are in terrible condition.”

Dillon said she is concerned increasing fuel efficiency is eating into state revenues from the gasoline taxes. She added that without additional revenue, Connecticut is vulnerable to federal spending cuts on transportation. She explained that the state needs to invest more of its own money in routine road upkeep and larger transportation projects.

Proposals to reinstate tolls on Connecticut roads face significant opposition, however. Last summer, the state Senate passed a bill to allow tolls on Route 11 to fund the road’s expansion to Waterford, but the bill was killed in the House.

Auto-services group AAA Southern New England, which lobbies for motorists, opposes collecting tolls on any already existing roads. Fran Mayko, a spokeswoman for AAA, said, “I know the state is in dire straits here with a budget problem, and I know a lot of lawmakers feel that [tolls] are one way to raise money, we just don’t feel it’s the appropriate way.”

The state government has routinely borrowed from its Special Transportation Fund, which finances state transportation infrastructure and upkeep, in order to balance its overall budget. AAA, however, opposes this practice, blaming such budgetary practices in part for the state’s current transportation funding problems.

Rep. David Scribner, R-Brookfield, the ranking Republican member of the House’s Transportation Committee and Transportation Bonding Subcommittee, has played a major role in opposing new highway tolls. He said toll booths still create hazardous driving conditions, as not every car is equipped with devices to pay electronically. Scribner added that tolls, especially at the border, will discourage residents of other states from coming to Connecticut to shop and do business.

“It is clearly a disincentive for out-of-state people to come to Connecticut. I think that works against all of our other efforts to create job growth, to encourage people to come as consumers to the state of Connecticut,” Scribner said.

Scribner contested Dillon’s assertion that gasoline tax revenues have fallen as fuel efficiency has increased. He also noted that gasoline is taxed more heavily in Connecticut than almost anywhere else in the nation. The Nutmeg State has two gasoline taxes: one flat, $0.25 per gallon charge levied when consumers fill up their car, and one 7.53 percent tax levied on wholesalers. Although the latter is capped when gasoline exceeds $3.00 per gallon, the rate is scheduled to increase to 8.81 percent in July of this year.

Scribner said Connecticut will have to forgo federal highway funding if it chooses to implement tolls.

“[The federal government] has strongly adhered to a policy of discouraging tolling at the national level. … It is certain that [implementing tolls] would reduce our federal transportation funding which, by the way, approaches $500 million per year. Virtually every transportation improvement project in Connecticut is supported nearly 80 percent by federal funds.”

Dillon said that there are ways around the federal requirements. She noted that the federal government is the one paying for the bulk of the Connecticut Department of Transportation’s ongoing study to determine the feasibility of implementing tolls in the state.

“Many states have tolls in very targeted ways and don’t miss their federal dollars,” she said.

According to The Wall Street Journal, gasoline in Connecticut cost an average of $3.90 per gallon in 2012. It tied New York in having the fourth-highest total of any state, and the second-highest of any mainland state.

Correction: Jan. 18

A previous version of this article mistakenly stated that a study by the Connecticut Academy of Science and Engineers (CASE) showed Connecticut to be more reliant than any other state on federal funding for its highways. In fact, the study, which the Connecticut Department of Transportation asked CASE to perform, did not demonstrate this, nor did it attempt to do so.

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