The Connecticut General Assembly’s Transportation Committee passed a bill on March 17 that would potentially reinstate tolls on state highways 30 years after the tolls were removed.
The bill would also decrease Connecticut’s gas tax by 2.5 cents per gallon over a five year period, beginning a year after the bill is implemented. The bill’s objective is to increase revenues for the state’s Special Transportation Fund, which is meant to be used exclusively for state infrastructure projects. The Transportation Committee voted 19–16 on the bill, largely along party lines with Democrats in favor of the bill and Republicans in opposition.
In order for it to go into effect, the bill must pass in the General Assembly before its session concludes in June. The House currently has 79 Democrats and 72 Republicans, but despite the Democrats’ slight majority, several members expressed doubts that the measure will pass.
“I don’t know a Republican who will vote for tolls,” saidState Rep. Gail Lavielle GRD ’81, R-Norwalk. “There are two Democrats who have always, steadfastly voted against tolls. I just don’t see that the Democrats have the votes to pass this.”
Because Connecticut does not receive revenue from tolls, it receives federal aid for its interstate highways. This aid places restrictions on the state’s ability to install flat-rate tolls. One way to curtail these measures would be to install congestion tolls, which are meant to control traffic by increasing toll prices during rush hours.
Lavielle and State Sen. Len Suzio, R-Cheshire, said they voted against the bill for multiple reasons. They share with fellow Republicans the concern that reinstating taxes would lead to possible misappropriate of funds: in the past, revenue going into the Special Transportation Fund has been used for expenses other than transportation.
Lavielle said there has been discussion about creating a lockbox on the fund that would essentially guarantee that certain money, such as revenue from tolls, going into that fund would stay there unless it is used on transportation services. But past attempts to do so have been unsuccessful, and Republicans are skeptical of future efforts.
Suzio and Lavielle also said they worry the new toll would represent yet another fee that Connecticut residents must pay, on top of some of the country’s highest tax rates. Connecticut is unusual in that it has two gas taxes — a flat rate currently priced at 25 cents per gallon and a percentage tax on the wholesale price of gas. Special Transportation Fund revenues currently come from these taxes, as well as licensing fees, revenue from rail and bus tickets and other transportation-related fees.
State lawmakers from both parties are concerned that revenues in the fund are decreasing: the fund’s operating budget will go into the red in 2019 and the fund itself will go into deficit in 2022. According to Suzio and Lavielle, some legislators argue that gas tax revenues will go down as people start to find alternate sources of fuel. Further exacerbating the issue are the state’s plans to invest heavily in infrastructure in the coming years, which will lead to an increase in spending that is double what it has been historically, Suzio said.
This projected deficit is what prompted State Rep. Cristin McCarthy Vahey, D-Fairfield, to vote in favor of the bill.
“Unfortunately, because we did not address [infrastructure] needs for so long, we have significant capital projects that are going to take millions and millions in funds,” Vahey said. “They can’t and shouldn’t wait.”
Still, Suzio is not convinced that spending needs to increase so dramatically or that revenue will fall. According to Suzio, as gas prices go up, gas tax revenues will go up. He projected that the state might be getting $60 million or $70 million a year in increased revenues from rising gas prices, which he said might be enough to “help us embark on this ambitions plan to rebuild.”
Lavielle believes that in order for congestion pricing to be effective, an extra lane must be added in highways in addition to the implementation of tolls, the cost of which, she believes, would offset any increases in revenue that the tolls would generate.
Connecticut removed tolls in 1985 soon after they caused an accident that resulted in multiple fatalities in Stratford.