For whom the road tolls: Darien's public officials weigh in on new state transportation bill
The legislature’s transportation Committee approved a bill Friday that would return tolls to Connecticut highways after more than three decades. The bill would also reduce the gasoline tax by half a penny,
A gubernatorial panel in January 2016 laid out $42 billion in revenue options — including tolls and gasoline tax increases — to fund long-term transportation initiatives according to the CT Mirror.
With Darien having two exits on I-95, depending on the placement, tolls could impact residents in a variety of ways, from cost to motorists possibly using the Post Road through Darien to get around paying.
Support with stipulations
First Selectman Jayme Stevenson brought up the concept of congestion pricing when asked for a comment, noting there was a difference between that and the standard toll.
“Standard tolls create an anticipated revenue stream, while congestion pricing along with tolls is meant to mitigate congestion through variable toll payment on certain lanes and at certain times of day. One is strictly a financial mechanism and the other is a traffic management system,” she said.
Stevenson said she was “ok” with the toll concept given certain conditions, including that “the revenues are dedicated to road, bridge or rail infrastructure improvements, not used to fund other financial needs of the state.”
She also said the location of the tolls in should not impact communities like Darien negatively by becoming a detour for those trying to avoid a toll. Stevenson also added that the payment structure should not create a disproportionate impact on middle and lower wage workers who need to use the highway for work.
An annual report to taxpayers of revenue and how that revenue is being used was another of her requirements, along with making sure initial cost and annual expenses don’t negate revenue.
“It is very unfortunate that the fiscal condition of our state is requiring us to rethink our acceptance of/necessity for things like tolls, legal marijuana and commercial casinos to provide new revenue sources,” she said.
State Rep. William Tong, a Democrat who represents part of Darien and Stamford, said he generally “does not support tolls.”
“I do think we should consider dynamic electronic tolling for trucks and commercial vehicles only,” Tong said.
“Under that system, trucks would pay a fee through an electronic transponder, like EZ-pass, and pricing would be dynamic, i.e., we could charge trucks a higher fee during peak rush hour, and a lower fee during the overnight hours,” he said.
State Rep. Terrie Wood, a Republican who represents part of Darien and Rowayton, said in general she is not opposed to tolls, especially with updated toll technology.
But, she added, “I feel strongly we need to set our state on a path of fiscal health first before enacting another tax on our citizens.”
“If tolls are enacted, 100% the revenues, need to go to fund road, bridge or rail infrastructure needs exclusive and not swept to the General Fund. Each year I've seen dedicated ( and statutorily set) revenue sources swept into the General Fund,” she said.
Echoing Stevenson, Wood said the cost of tolls should not impact the middle class and the cost of establishing this program not exceed revenues.
According to ConnecticutHistory.org, Connecticut became the second state in the country to form a highway department in 1895 and by 1908 this department took over the management of 1,000 miles of roads. Tolls were often used to defray the expense of improvement and maintenance.
The site reported that in 1982, protests from community groups such as “Banish All Tolls” began pressuring the legislature. The tolls were seen as an unfair barrier to commuters; they wasted gas, caused congestion, and created noise and hazardous air pollutants. A horrific accident in January 1983 at the Stratford toll plaza added more pressure, prompting the Connecticut State Highway Department and the legislature to examine the tolls from a safety standpoint. The decision was made to remove the eight toll plazas on the Connecticut Turnpike and the one on the Bissell Bridge by December 31, 1985. In 1986 additional legislation required the closure of the tolls on the Merritt and Wilbur Cross parkways by 1988. The Charter Oak Bridge in Hartford collected the state’s last toll.
More info at ConnecticutHistory.org.
Support for tolls
Darien’s Jim Cameron, long-time commuter advocate and founder of the Commuter Action Group, supports the idea.
“Tolls are probably the best way to fund our badly needed, long overdue repairs to our highways. They are not a "tax" but a user's fee and, with modern technology, will not worsen traffic but improve it,” he said.
“With time-of-day pricing (as with peak and off-peak fares on Metro-North) those paying tolls will find less traffic and a faster ride. Driving our highways comes with a cost that is best borne by all who drive, not just taxpayers,” Cameron said.
Cameron said he was pleased lawmakers were finally recognizing the need of “barrier-free tolling as a means of replenishing the special transportation fund.”
“But we still need a "lock box" on those funds to guarantee they will only be used for that purpose,” Cameron said.
When asked for comment by The Darien Times, Sen. Carlo Leone, a Democrat who represents part of the Stamford and Darien, responded that his “my comments were made in committee and on CT-N.”
Connecticut Network is the state’s government access television access station.
“It boils down to the public and every general assembly member weighing in on the issue,” he added.
Sen. Bob Duff, a Democrat who represents part of Norwalk and Darien, did not respond to The Darien Times’ request for comment.
Wood said now that the bill has made it out of the transportation committee, it will likely go next before the Finance Committee, of which she is a member.