House Democrats begin push for electronic tolls; Darien officials have mixed reactions
On Monday morning, a dozen Democrats from the House of Representatives promised to put forth a bill that would pave the way for electronic tolls on Connecticut highways. The Department of Transportation would create tolls, and the revenue generated would fund transportation projects. Tony Guerrera, D-Rocky Hill, is the house chairman of the Transportation Committee, and has been pushing for tolls for some time. “I promise you, if we do this, Connecticut will thrive,” Guerrera said in a press conference.
Without tolls, it would be possible to see fare hikes in public transportation to cover the projects. In early January, the state released a roster of 400 capital projects worth just over $4 billion that have been postponed over lack of funding.
Chris Perone, the chief transportation financial officer, said in a statement, “We are looking at a scenario where we will run out of money for our transportation infrastructure. Electronic tolls are the answer.”
There was some pushback against the idea. Many are worried that the revenue generated by tolls would be taken and used to address deficits in the state operating budget, as opposed to actually funding transportation projects.
Danbury Mayor Mark Boughton, a Republican who is running for governor, came out strongly against the idea, saying in a statement, "After misappropriating transportation funds for years to cover-up self-inflicted budget deficits, Democrats now want to draw blood from a stone and impose yet another tax on the people of our state."
Republicans have historically come out against the idea of adding tolls, preferring instead to limit borrowing. Democrats have not been uniformly in favor of tolls, and with the house nearly evenly split, garnering enough votes to pass a measure to create tolls could be a difficult task.
Connecticut highways had tolls in 1958, but they were abolished in 1988 after a crash killed seven people in Stratford in 1983. Before being removed in 1985, tolls generated about $65 million annually in revenue for the state.
Commuter advocate and Darien resident Jim Cameron said he was “heartened that somebody in the legislature is finally being honest with constituents about the need for and inevitability of tolls returning to our state.”
“Like so many of his fellow-Democrats, Senator [Bob] Duff has been hypocritical in saying he supports commuters but doesn't support tolls,” Cameron said.
“While allowing his party to steal from the Special Transportation Fund to balance the state's budget and while endorsing the sweetheart deal of state unions to line their pockets at our expense, the majority party has all but guaranteed the fiscal crisis we now face,” Cameron said.
“Connecticut is the only state in the Northeast that doesn't have tolls. It's time we finally asked all motorists to pay their fair share for our transportation network, not just Metro-North commuters who are facing another 20% fare hike,” Cameron said.
Darien officials respond
“Given the current state of our transportation infrastructure, the idea of a tolls discussion and update with the new technologies available is a topic that all, public and legislators included, must weigh in on including debate in the General Assembly,” State Sen. Carlo Leone, a Democrat who represents part of Darien and Stamford, said.
"The transportation committee will raise the concept and it remains to be seen where the support or lack of support resides. The only option in regards to improving transportation issues that cannot be considered is to do nothing,” Leone said.
State Rep. Terrie Wood, a Republican who represents Darien and Rowayton, said the concept of tolls makes good sense “especially since technology has made great strides in making it safe and easy to toll.”
“Most states have them and they serve to support building and repairing our roads,” Wood said.
However, she said she does have concerns, including that the tolls that were proposed last year would add great cost to middle class daily commuters.
“For example, in 1983 when the tolls were removed, there were four tolling booths between Greenwich and East Haven at .25 cents per toll. The tolls proposal last session for the same stretch of road was for 13 tolls at at price ranging from .50 to .80 cents per toll,” she said.
Wood said that would have added $250 per month to commuters from Bridgeport to Stamford.
“I didn't feel that was responsible to layer another cost on the hardworking middle class who are already stretched by taxes and fees. Until we get control of our addiction to revenue and cut the cost of running our state, I cannot support another fee on our citizens at this time,” she said.
Wood added that the revenue from the tolls would need to be dedicated solely to transportation infrastructure and not swept into the General Fund to earn her support.
“We are in this situation of looking for new revenue because the legislative Democrats in charge of both the house and senate along with Governor Malloy have mismanaged our state finances over the last seven years. Our expenses running the state are outpacing revenues,” she added.
“A quote from this past Saturday’s editorial in the Wall Street Journal says it all, ‘Connecticut voters are just beginning to understand the damage done from two terms of Mr. Malloy,’” Wood said.
State Sen. Bob Duff, a Democrat representing Darien and Norwalk, serves as Senate Majority Leader.
"Connecticut needs a transportation authority – just as we have a port authority and airport authority - with the ability and nimbleness to meet our long-term transportation needs," Duff told The Darien Times.
"The General Assembly has dedicated a percentage of sales tax directly to transportation funding and has placed on the November ballot a constitutional amendment creating a transportation lock box," he said.
"We will not be able to fully solve Connecticut’s problems unless we firmly commit to implementing a rational school funding formula, fixing our transportation infrastructure and creating a strong and diverse housing market," Duff said.
First Selectman Jayme Stevenson said it was too premature to weigh in on the tolls “until we see the cost of installation, administration and any other hidden costs tolling analyzed against reasonable (not overly inflated) revenue estimates.”
“Personally, I want to know the expected burden on lower-wage workers who must drive to and from their jobs,” she said.
Among other questions Stevenson had were the impact of federal funding received if tolls are installed and will tolls extend to truckers and the impact on business environment.
She also asked about the consideration of congestion pricing, which means more expensive tolls during rush hour to try to balance traffic and encourage people to travel at less busy times.
“Do people really have the job schedule flexibility to be able to avoid inflated pricing during peak times?” she asked.
She also asked about the implications of either state-run or privatized tolls, and finally wondered if all revenues be secured so that they will be used only for transportation improvements.
“Bottom line…I don’t have enough information yet to be satisfied that tolls are part of the right transportation funding solution,” she said.
State Rep. William Tong, who represents Stamford and part of Darien, has not yet responded to request for comment.