Democratic View: Tolls

As the state legislature gathers this month to debate the state budget, reinstalling tolls on highways and state routes should be among the long-term options considered.

Connecticut has held out for too long against highway tolls. The state roads are among the most heavily traveled in the nation. Yet Connecticut for years has resisted following the lead of states from Maine to North Carolina in installing electronic tolls. With toll revenue, the state could repair crumbling roads and bridges.

Toll-related bills have died in the legislature for years as legislators argued that they were safety hazards. But the manned tolls that were responsible for the 1983 Stratford toll plaza crash that killed seven people and led state officials to remove them from Interstate 95 and the Merritt Parkway are a thing of the past. Now traffic proceeds past polling gantries at normal speed, with E-ZPass accounts automatically debited. Vehicles without E-ZPass are photographed for billing via mail.

Opponents also argue that tolls put an undue burden on Connecticut drivers. But while Connecticut drivers will be charged, so will those passing through the state. State studies have shown that about 30% of toll revenue would come from out-of-state drivers and 24% from trucks, leaving Connecticut residents paying the remaining 46%.

The number of electronic toll gantries varies. One scenario in a 2016 state study puts 11 gantries along Interstate 84 between Hartford and the New York border. Using a congestion pricing option, motorists would pay 50 cents during a peak period and 35 cents during hours of light traffic. Another proposal would put gantries at 12 locations along Interstate 95 between New Haven and the New York line and 10 on the Merritt Parkway covering the same distance. Border tolls have also been considered, but the state would risk losing federal funding. When Connecticut removed tolls in the 1980s, it gave up the right to collect revenue from those crossing the borders. In exchange, it received more federal funds.

All told, a congestion pricing option could bring in $750 million a year in revenue if fully implemented, state Transportation Commissioner James Redeker has said. That would include adding tolls to state routes 2, 8 and 9 in addition to Interstates 95 and 84 and the Merritt Parkway.

The cost of installing tolls using the congestion option is $450 million to $635 million, depending on the number of highways and state routes in the network. And it would take four to five years to get the tolls approved and installed before revenue arrives. But tolls could generate $62 billion in revenue over a 25-year period, according to state studies.

The need for repairing the state’s infrastructure has never been greater. Connecticut has among the top 10 most congested highways in the country. And it’s in the top 10 with bridges in poor condition.

For those who remember the 1983 Mianus River Bridge collapse, crumbling state roads and bridges are a recipe for disaster. Tolls are only one ingredient for funding needed repairs, but one that should be implemented now.

The Ridgefield Democratic Town Committee provides this column. Mark Seavy is the DTC’s corresponding secretary and a member of its Editorial Committee.