First toll bill hits legislature
The first bill to deal with electronic tolls was introduced Jan. 16 in the Connecticut General Assembly by freshman Democratic Sen. Alexandra Bergstein of Greenwich. The one-page bill, Proposed Bill No. 102, would require:
- The establishment of electronic tolls on major highways.
- Fees on a per-mile basis to be comparable to surrounding states;
- Proceeds of tolls to be deposited in the Special Transportation Fund, some portion of which would be diverted to a newly created state infrastructure bank.
That last item caught Wilton’s state Rep. Gail Lavielle (R-143) by surprise.
“I saw that and I said, ‘What!?’” Lavielle told The Bulletin on Friday, Jan. 17. “You’re going to take money out of the Special Transportation Fund that we’ve been screaming about for years and put it in an infrastructure bank to do what?”
She tagged that as “hasty and perhaps not fully informed. That’s not something you do lightly.”
She also questioned the wisdom of establishing toll fees based on what other states charge. “Why do that?” she asked. Maybe the fees should be less, she said. What about congestion pricing?
“I think it’s a bit sloppy,” she said of the fee considerations.
Lavielle also had something to say about a strategy Bergstein put forward in which the state could reap the financial rewards of tolling before any gantries are even put up. In an interview with the CT Mirror, Bergstein suggested taking advantage of money that could be invested by the private sector. The state could offer future toll revenues to investors in return for a one-time upfront payment.
“People seem to be accepting that one proposal with 82 gantries, that we’d be getting $1 billion a year,” Lavielle said. The truth is, she said, the state does not know how much money it will need or how much the tolls will generate.
“Boy, is that risky,” she said of private investment in Connecticut tolls. “If you observe the state for any length of time, you know it doesn’t do a good job of predicting its costs. Costs for toll roads tend to go up. Personnel costs go up.” The state might not collect as much as people think. Also, she said, “the state is good at diverting money before it goes into the Special Transportation Fund.”
“They seem to be trying to say ‘we’re going to put up as many of these [gantries] as possible to collect as much money as possible’ instead of measuring how much money you reasonably need and then putting up as many gantries as you need,” Lavielle said.
She also said it is interesting all this is going on now, given that revenue for the Special Transportation Fund is projected to grow significantly over the next four years, due to a tax on oil companies and a contribution from the general sales and use tax. She added that gas tax revenues, on the other hand, are projected to be flat through 2023.
To that end, Lavielle has introduced HB 5665, which would require the Department of Transportation, in conjunction with the Office of Policy and Management and the Office of Fiscal Analysis, to prepare a 20-year forecast regarding gas tax revenues. The forecast would be updated annually and include any anticipated changes each year.
“We need some good, solid estimates,” she said, before decisions can be made.
When asked his thoughts about the bill, state Rep. Tom O’Dea responded by email saying plainly, “I am opposed to tolls.”
He went on to say, “The transportation fund has been continually raided for non-transportation spending. If not for the taking of those funds for decades, everyone agrees we’d have plenty of money for our transportation needs.
“We have a spending problem and neither tolls nor any other additional ‘revenue sources’ are going to fix our excessive spending. Our budget has been at about $20 billion when it should be reduced to $17 billion.
“If the majority wants tolls, I am hopeful we can negotiate something along the lines of limiting tolls to bridges (in order to prevent pushing additional traffic onto our local roads), significantly discounting EZ passes being sold in Connecticut and using any surpluses to reduce taxes on our residents and businesses, not increase spending outside of transportation,” he said.
“Put another way, our $20 billion budget needs to be $17 billion, not $21 billion or more. We should not redirect the current transportation funding (again which everyone agreed was sufficient if not for it continually being swept away for other things) to increase our budget.
“If any part of the current transportation funding is deemed no longer needed for transportation because tolls are covering our transportation needs, that money should be used to reduce the current level of excessive taxation that is destroying our economy and forcing individuals and businesses to leave in record numbers.”
Wilton’s new state senator, Will Haskell (D-26) has not been shy about his support of some form of tolling.
“Connecticut taxpayers bear the sole brunt of maintaining our infrastructure,” he told a group of real estate agents at a talk at Realty Seven in December. Toll collection methods can be creative he said, suggesting commuters could be offered discounts and tax rebates could be offered to small businesses.
One of his conditions for supporting tolls is a lockbox to use money collected for transportation purposes. He would said that if drivers pass under a toll within 10 miles of where their E-ZPass is registered, they would not have to pay that toll.
Very much opposed to any sort of toll is the grassroots organization NoTollsCT.org. “This is just another tax on the working people of Connecticut who have to drive everyday and who struggle to make ends meet,” a press release from the organization said.
“This is not how you make Connecticut a place where people can grow and thrive. This will raise the cost of groceries and the goods we need to survive. Enough is enough. People can’t afford this,” said Patrick Sasser, head of NoTollsCT.org.
Proposed Bill 102 will likely be just the first of several toll bills this year. There were four toll bills introduced last year.