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Lawmakers disagree on tolls as source of new revenue

By Johanna Somers

Publication: The Day

Published February 26. 2013 4:00AM   Updated February 26. 2013 12:19PM
Some favor them at borders, others foresee problems

Hartford - Members of the legislature's Transportation Committee couldn't agree Monday on whether tolls should be used to raise revenue for infrastructure while some southeastern Connecticut lawmakers supported the creation of a Route 11 toll to fund the completion of the road.

"I can't understand why any reasonable person would be objecting to this," said state Sen. Andrew Maynard, D-Stonington.

Opponents said tolls are unfair if used only in border cities, would push drivers looking to avoid them onto smaller roads, causing traffic, and would create another revenue source that would be diverted from infrastructure.

Toll supporters said there was no choice but to create another revenue source because of previous poor planning. The lawmakers agreed that a "lock box" or statute preventing the misuse of transportation funds should be created.

Route 11 was started 40 years ago and was not meant to stop at Route 82 in Salem, said David Bingham, the secretary of the town's Planning and Zoning Commission. State funding to complete the road was used for other projects, and southeastern Connecticut residents have realized that they need to pay for the road themselves, he said.

Proposed House Bill 6052 requests the establishment of electronic tolls to fund the construction of Route 11 from Salem to Interstate 95. The road would be paid with state bonding and then paid off with the toll revenue. Once the state is paid back, the tolls would be discontinued. The bill is similar to one that passed the House two years ago and the Senate last year. The goal this year is to have it pass in both the House and the Senate, said former Salem first selectman Peter Sielman.

"Third year will be a charm," said state Rep. Ed Jutila, D-East Lyme, who is sponsoring the bill.

State Sen. Toni Boucher, R-Wilton, said that although she supports a district pursuing its own course, some fear it would open the door to tolls in general.

But what distinguishes the Route 11 toll from putting tolls on existing highways is that no one would have to change the roads they currently drive on, Sielman said.

"If you don't want to pay the toll and continue what you are doing now, you are free to do that," he said.

But many people will choose to pay a $2 toll to go down to New London as opposed to taking Route 85, which is full of stop-and-go traffic and increases mileage, he said.

The state Department of Transportation recently reported that the cost of completing Route 11 and the interchange of Route 11, I-95 and I-395 would cost $1.2 billion to $1.5 billion. The federal government would fund about 80 percent of the cost.

Sielman said that based on a $2 toll for cars and a slightly higher toll for trucks, it would take about 25 years to pay the state back.

Border versus statewide

The Transportation Committee's co-chairman, State Rep. Antonio Guerrera, D-Rocky Hill, said he is ready to find a revenue source for the state's crumbling infrastructure.

He said that if someone has a better idea than tolls, "let me know."

"But I don't want to be sitting here on my dime when a road or a bridge collapses," Guerrera said.

As the federal government encourages fuel efficiency and there is political resistance to raising tax rates, Connecticut's gas tax is at risk, according to a Department of Transportation presentation given to lawmakers on Friday. Revenues also continue to be diverted away from the Special Transportation Fund, according to many lawmakers at Monday's meeting.

While those at Monday's meeting agreed that funds collected for roads and bridges are spent for that purpose, adding a "lock box" to deal with the misuse of current funds didn't give everyone confidence.

"Regardless of what our intentions might be, it is not necessarily going to translate into protecting that source of revenue for that purpose," said state Rep. David Scribner, R-Brookfield.

Marshall Collins, a lobbyist for the Greater Danbury Chamber of Commerce, said the organization is opposed to a border tax that would disproportionately impact border communities such as Danbury.

"If we need more revenue to maintain our roads, then we have to look at something that everyone pays," Collins said.

House Bill 6051 proposes to establish tolls at Connecticut's borders and reduce the gasoline tax. On the positive side, a border toll would mean getting revenue from people who pass through the state, Maynard said. With new technology, residents could be charged a lower toll fee than nonresidents, he said.

There are a lot of truckers, casino patrons and vacationers coming through the state, he said.

But there are many things to consider, he said. If tolls are brought back, some federal funds would be lost, he said. The net gain or loss would have to be determined, Maynard said.

The state would also have to determine how to implement the tolls fairly.

It's not fair for someone who commutes three miles to work but crosses a border to have to pay a toll while someone else drives 30 miles inside the state to Hartford doesn't have to pay a toll, Collins said. The toll would also serve as a deterrent to shopping at the Danbury Fair Mall, one of the largest in New England, which provides a huge amount of sales tax revenue for the state, he said.

But First Selectman Rudy Marconi said something had to be done to raise revenues.

"I am an advocate of tolls, not an advocate of additional taxes," he said.

There needs to be an education campaign on tolls, he said. There would not be old-fashioned toll structures, the tolls would be electronic and the driver wouldn't have to stop, he said.

This is an opportunity to create some "serious revenue streams" and prevent the state from having to make some unnecessary cuts, he said.

State Rep. Timothy Larson, D-East Hartford, said he would be in favor of tolls beyond border cities and towns.

"I don't have concern about my residents paying a little more. I am concerned about whether the infrastructure will hold up," he said.

Residents from other cities drive through East Hartford, but the roads don't get fixed, he said.

j.somers@theday.com

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