Electronic tolls would not be a quick solution to fund transportation projects, according to local legislators who answered the public’s questions Jan. 29 during a town hall-type meeting at the Wilton Library Brubeck Room. It drew 50 people.

That 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 to fund transportation projects.

Wilton’s state legislators, Reps. Gail Lavielle (R-143) and Tom O’Dea (R-125) along with Sen. Toni Boucher (R-26), told the audience at the library it would take years for an electronic toll system to be fully in place and running.

That’s important because 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. A plan to improve the intersection of Route 7 and Grumman Hill Road was among those projects.

“It will take five to seven years to install this, and begin to produce revenue,” said Lavielle, referring to how it is a long-range notion and not a short-term solution to the state’s funding problems.

Further, the Republicans don’t know that the money would be used only for transportation, were it to be raised.

Lavielle does not believe a lockbox measure for the fund that the public will vote on in November is strong enough to protect the money from other uses.

“The question on the ballot requires all money in the fund be used for transportation purposes. What it does not do, however, is specify what money must go into the fund like the gas tax, rail fares, etc. It deals with the money only after it's actually in the fund. So the legislature could, for example, divert a portion of revenues normally destined for the fund to a non-transportation purpose before they actually land in the fund,” Lavielle said later in an email, explaining what she was referring to. “So it is not really a very secure lockbox.”

O’Dea said he would not support a gas tax, which has been talked about, if the money is siphoned off and used somewhere other than the transportation fund.

Another issue the public wanted to know about was the federal tax changes.

“The topic is on a lot of people’s minds right now,” said Lavielle. Half of the state is happy about it, because a  lot people take standard deductions, and other people have high property taxes on their home, she said.

Connecticut, New Jersey and New York governors have filed a suit against the federal government because of the tax law, but that won’t succeed, she said.

This part of the state will feel it heavily, said Boucher, who is exploring a run for governor. She said the lawsuit is more of a public relations tactic.

O’Dea had a brighter outlook on what will become of taxpayers in the aftermath of the federal changes. “I think the vast majority of the people will be either flat, or go down,” O’Dea said, adding that lowering the tax rate will have a positive impact on the majority of people. “Stay flat, or even lower a bit.”

The biggest issue of the night was that the state is in dire financial straits, the legislators told the audience.

“You’ve got to lower expenditures,” an audience member said.

The solution, O’Dea said, is for the public to elect more fiscal conservatives to the legislature.

The legislators engaged in the discussion before the legislative “short session” begins on February 7, amidst persisting budget issues and concerns about transportation funding.

Boucher said attending town hall events helps her stay in touch with constituents and the issues important to them.

“While people can call or email me, seeing people face-to-face is so important to appreciating the issues that really matter to them,” Boucher said later in a statement.  “Before the town hall, some of my Democrat colleagues had a press conference about putting tolls on Connecticut highways. Many of my constituents are commuters and proposals for tolls and increased rail fares means more money coming out of their pockets. They want to know what is being done to control costs. They want an accounting of how their money is being spent.

“There is also a lot of concern about the state’s finances and how their tax dollars are being spent,” Boucher  said.. “Too many of them are thinking of moving because of the high cost to live in the state. All agreed that they love Connecticut, but they want to see tax policies changed. It’s my responsibility to make certain those concerns are being heard in Hartford.”