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Tolls: Connecticut's Route Out Of Transportation Fund Shortage?

Williams: 'I Don't Think It's Anyone's First Choice'

Don Stacom

January 19, 2011

After years of pitching the same idea, Rep. Tony Guerrera, D-Rocky Hill, has heard all the objections to levying tolls on Connecticut highways.

But with a $3.5 billion budget gap looming, Guerrera says he has 600 million arguments that detractors simply can't answer.

"You put up border tolls for $5 a trip, you're talking $600 million a year in revenue," says Guerrera, who also has looked at $3 tolls and $1 tolls. "That's $18 billion over 30 years. You can't argue with that."

Proud of his reputation as "The Toll Man" at the Capitol, Guerrera isn't discouraged that his colleagues back away from the idea year after year. Five bits of bad news make tolls way more attractive than usual, he says: The state's budget crisis is brutal, its dedicated transportation fund will be in deficit by mid-summer, federal highway aid is shaky, gas tax revenue is weak and transportation infrastructure needs billions of dollars in overdue maintenance.

It's a sensitive topic: Each year, taxpayers groups issue similar complaints about his idea, saying tolls are a stealth tax. Border towns warn that it will kill business from nearby Massachusetts, New York and Rhode Island people. And longtime residents raise fears of a replay of the 1983 crash at the old Stratford toll plaza that killed seven people.

As co-chairman of the General Assembly's transportation committee, Guerrera this winter is introducing yet another legislative proposal to put up high-tech, all-electronic tolls at eight key entry points to the state: two each on I-84 and I-95 and one each on the Merritt Parkway, I-91, I-395 and Route 6.

There would be no booths, no lines of traffic and no stopping; overhead signals would record each vehicle with an EZ-Pass-style transponder. For cars without one, an overhead camera would photograph the license plates and the state would send bills to the cars' owners.

Even if that can solve the tollbooth issue, there's little political glamour to promoting tolls on Connecticut interstates.

"I don't think it's anyone's first choice," said Senate President Donald Williams, D-Brooklyn.

Gov. Dannel P. Malloy last month expressed deep reservations about the idea, saying he's skeptical about what would happen with the money. Proponents envision toll revenue going into a dedicated fund for road repairs and bridge work. But Malloy said he's not convinced that lawmakers or future governors could resist pirating the money for the general budget when times are bad.

Guerrera has an answer to that.

"The governor is exactly right. The public would support this if they trusted that 100 percent of the money would go to fixing bridges and fixing roads," Guerrera says. "So if we can't design legislation with a real 'lock box,' then let's do a constitutional amendment something that makes sure every dollar will go to the roads."

Such talk would seem outlandish in ordinary times, but it might sound pretty good this spring when legislators are embroiled in what promises to be a bruising budget struggle. What toll opponents don't offer is an alternative, Guerrera says.

"We know we have more than $3 billion in infrastructure needs in this state, just to repair what we have. We know that raising the gas tax won't do it cars are getting more mileage, we're hearing gas could cost $5 by next year, people are driving less. So that's not going to work," he says. "The federal government doesn't have the money. They've said they can't keep up with all the work that America's infrastructure needs. Tolls are a way to bring in $600 million a year for 30 years."

Guerrera's figures come from a Cambridge Systematics Inc. study last year for the General Assembly. It noted potential downsides to tolls, such as stores in big border towns along major highways, like Enfield and Danbury, losing business from neighboring states.

Guerrera said he'd be open to negotiating solutions: perhaps a formula that shares a percentage of toll revenue to affected towns so they could cut taxes for their retailers. To benefit Connecticut taxpayers immediately, he'd support a reduction in the gas tax.

"But we have to look at what's happening now. You've got trucks driving through, tearing up our roads and not stopping anywhere in the state, not doing anything for us," he said. "We have no problem paying when we go to Boston or New York, Delaware, Jersey, or Newport, R.I."

Federal regulations prohibit tolls on most federally supported interstates, but toll proponents say Congress might be more agreeable to waivers because of the fiscal crisis that's crippling dozens of states. Guerrera said that if his colleagues show interest this winter, he would invite Connecticut's Congressional delegation to a hearing to discuss strategies for authorizing tolls on state highways.

"I think this is the year it could change. In the past, we've been told the door on tolls was closed. This year, I think I hear it opening," said Guerrera.

Williams doesn't disagree.

"You can't say there's something you wouldn't discuss now," Williams said. "Everything's on the table this year."

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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