Despite significant opposition from residents, business owners and state officials, the state’s Transportation Committee passed a bill last Wednesday that requires the state to install electronic tolls on Connecticut highways.
Since Gov. Dannel Malloy introduced his three-decade transportation goals in his budget address last month, state officials have debated ways to finance his proposal — which includes widening highways, expanding rail service and upgrading bridges across the state. The bill that passed last week requires the state’s Commissioner of Transportation to outline an implementation plan for tolls, Commissioner Jim Redeker said, and it will now move to be voted on by both the House and the Senate. The bill passed by a margin of 18 to 13, meeting strong opposition from Republican officials and lawmakers who represent communities with large numbers of commuters, such as Fairfield, Trumbull, Stamford, Greenwich and Danbury.
“We have to stop going the easy way and grabbing into the pockets of our state’s residents and businesses,” state Rep. Laura Devlin said at the hearing. “I can’t accept an additional tax on Connecticut residents as really an easy way out of a tough problem.”
Devlin, a Republican representing Fairfield and Trumbull, is one of many who voiced their concerns against the implementation of tolls. While they recognize that the state is in need of funding for infrastructure projects, those in opposition question whether tolls are the most effective measure.
At the hearing, Devlin said that the sum of residents’ state taxes is among the highest in the country and that it would be unwise to add on to those taxes.
During a previous hearing in late February where tolls were discussed, state officials, residents and business owners sent the transportation committee over 500 testimonies in opposition to tolls.
According to Michael Riley, president of the Motor Transport Association of Connecticut, part of the motivation behind the tolls is to charge non-Connecticut residents who use state highways. While the state would earn revenue from private vehicles passing through the state, Riley — who spoke out against the tolls — emphasized that commercial vehicles operating in Connecticut already pay a fuel tax, regardless of whether they are based in or out of Connecticut.
Neither Riley nor others who spoke out at the hearing suggested an alternative to tolls to fund Malloy’s transportation plan.
“I’ve been asking for years — if you have a better plan than tolls, tell me. I’m willing to listen,” said co-chairman of the Transportation Committee Tony Guerrera, who also serves as a Democratic state representative. Guerrera has been a key player in advocating for tolls.
The bill, if passed by the House and Senate, would require the Commissioner of Transportation to outline a program for the implementation of tolls by January 2016. It does not, however, call for the Department of Transportation to make a specific recommendation about whether or not there should be tolls, Redeker said. That means that as the bill moves forward, House and Senate officials will be voting on legislation that does not detail the locations and charge for the tolls.
At a public hearing on Feb. 25, Secretary of the Office of Policy and Management Ben Barnes said that the state had no plans to introduce highway tolls. Despite recent developments, the OPM’s position has not changed, said Gian Carl Casa, undersecretary for legislative affairs for the OPM.
“Funding [Malloy’s] long-term vision will require additional conversations on how to pay for it,” Casa said.
Tolls were abolished in Connecticut in 1986. Before then, tolls were in place on I-95, the Merritt and Wilbur Cross Parkways, as well as several Hartford-area bridges.