Transportation Board Looks at Connecticut Toll Issue

Fri April 24, 2009 - Northeast Edition
Stephanie Reitz




HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) Connecticut drivers will get a chance this spring to voice their opinions on whether the state should revive tolls at its borders or busy stretches of certain highways.

The state Transportation Strategy Board on March 19 sent a consultant’s report on the topic to the General Assembly and Gov. M. Jodi Rell. But it stopped short of endorsing or rejecting the idea, saying it wants public input first.

Tolls were removed from Connecticut highways and bridges in the 1980s and the old toll houses, including those along I-95, were demolished.

In recent years, though, some state leaders have said electronic tolls could be established there and elsewhere to ease congestion and potentially raise billions of dollars for the cash-strapped state.

But even supporters acknowledge that resurrecting tolls would not be an easy sell. Connecticut drivers already pay annual property taxes on their vehicles, and gas taxes of 25 cents per gallon on regular fuel and 43.4 cents on diesel.

A Quinnipiac University poll this month found 61 percent opposed resurrecting tolls on Connecticut highways. Opposition was highest in Fairfield County, where almost three of every four people questioned said no.

Rell has also said she opposes the idea.

The date and location of the Transportation Strategy Board’s planned public hearing have not been set, but board officials said they expect it to occur within 45 days.

“I am very sensitive to, and aware of, the amount of conversation and passion that so many constituencies have around this topic,’’ said Kevin Kelleher, the board’s chairman. “This is a topic that from the very beginning we knew would be provocative, but we also knew was imperative to review.’’

The consultant’s report examined options such as creating toll lanes parallel to highways that would let drivers avoid congestion; charging drivers based on how many miles they travel or the time of day; and placing electronic tolls at state borders.

Opponents have questioned how overflow traffic would be kept from clogging U.S. 1 and other roads near I-95, and whether parking would be boosted at train stations to give commuters better opportunities to use mass transit.

Republican State Sen. Toni Boucher, whose district in Norwalk and Wilton includes tens of thousands of I-95 commuters, said any discussion of imposing tolls should include cutting the gas tax at the same time.

Boucher said charging people to use certain highways based on the time of day would be inequitable.

“Most people don’t choose to be in a traffic jam; they’re there because they have to be at work at a particular time or risk getting fired,’’ she said.

Another option considered in the consultant’s report is charging cars and trucks electronically per mile they travel on certain Connecticut highways.

However, questions remain open about resolving drivers’ privacy concerns, and ensuring technology could accomplish the task without forcing drivers to install GPS units in their vehicles or sign up for transponders such as the E-ZPass or Florida’s SunPass.

U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood recently said the idea of charging vehicles per mile traveled was something “we should look at’’ on a national basis. But the Transportation Department quickly rejected it, saying LaHood’s comment “is not and will not be Obama administration policy.’’

Dozens of states already charge drivers to use highways, bridges, ferries or tunnels, including all of Connecticut’s border states and most along the nation’s Northeast corridor.

New York and Massachusetts have collected billions over the years from their lengthy turnpikes. And in Rhode Island — which has a toll bridge over its Narragansett Bay connecting to Newport and Jamestown — some officials have suggested adding tolls elsewhere to help that state deal with a budget crisis.

Several states also are considering adding tolls to new spots or boosting charges on existing toll roads to help offset budget deficits and pay for highway work.