Lucas Holter

The Connecticut General Assembly Finance, Revenue and Bonding Committee narrowly approved a bill mandating that the state investigate the issue of highway tolls, setting up what lawmakers believe will be a fierce debate in the state House.

The bill, which passed committee on April 5 by a 26–25 vote, calls on the Connecticut Department of Transportation to study the impact of establishing electronic toll booths on I-84, I-91, I-95 and on the Merritt and Wilbur Cross parkways. If approved by the General Assembly, the bill would also mandate that the department prepare a proposal looking into the potential locations for toll booths, as well as revenue estimates and discounts for frequent users in Connecticut. When that report is finished, the House of Representatives would have to make a decision on whether to add more tolls.

“This bill is about providing factual basis for making decisions about funding, and frankly that’s how it should always be,” Department of Transportation Commissioner James Redeker said. “For me, this issue is straightforward — not so much for politicians.”

According to a 2016 report by the state transportation department, implementing tolls could raise around $600 million to $800 million annually. Redeker described this as only a rough estimate, made without specific plans for the number and location of tolls. The study authorized by the new bill would take these details into account to create a more accurate revenue estimate.

Far from a recent development, the debate surrounding highway tolls is a touchy subject that has long divided lawmakers, ever since the state’s Special Transportation Fund became ensnarled in financial mire. This year, the state has been unable to sell bonds to pay for its transportation bills because of the fund’s poor financial health.

Highway tolls — along with an increased gas tax and tire tax — were part of Gov. Dannel Malloy’s recent pitch for alternative budget sources to save the ailing transportation fund. But even with this additional revenue, Redeker said the fund would barely be able to keep “minimum services afloat.”

Still, the urgency of the situation is not necessarily reflected in the political arena. Election season is near, and taxes are not particularly attractive to voters. Although this particular bill calls for investigative research rather than policy implementation, it scraped by the legislative committee in a 26–25 vote that was split along party lines and supported by Democrats. As a result, it remains to be seen whether tolls will manage to garner support among members in the House and Senate, the latter of which is tied party-wise.

Sen. Toni Boucher, R-Wilton, co-chairwoman of the transportation committee, strongly opposed tolls because of their potential impact on vulnerable populations.

“People are angry, and with good reason,” she said. “Can a person with a part-time job and low income afford these tolls? I don’t think so.”

She added that if tolls must be implemented, there should be a voluntary system in which drivers can opt in or out of tolls based on whether they prioritize conserving time or saving money.

Federal law requires states to carry out assessments that ensure toll prices do not adversely affect specific demographics. Asked whether his department has quantifiable data on how tolls might affect low-income populations, Redeker said that as of now, “there are no specifics,” adding that the mitigation of potential harm is one the department’s main concerns, and that it plans to look into discount strategies and congestion pricing.

Another contention is whether the financial burden of tolls would fall on Connecticut residents or out-of-state drivers. State transportation department studies show that 30 percent of drivers on state highways come from outside Connecticut. Sen. Scott Frantz, R-Greenwich, referred to these figures to argue that the lion’s share of the revenue would come at the expense of Connecticut residents, adding tolls to a long list of other taxes.

“Many people have said that we already have high taxes, and it’s true,” Redeker said. “But without tolls, the financial burden of paying for transportation will only be put on residents through” a gas tax.

Redeker said that with appropriate discount strategies, the state could devise a plan that advantages residents and maximizes out-of-state revenue. He estimated that up to 40 percent of earnings could come from out-of-state drivers.

Nicole Ahn | nicole.ahn@yale.edu