Connecticut Lawmakers Play Tug Of War Over Highway Tolls

Apr 27, 2017

Connecticut motorists may soon have to pay tolls again on state highways. That’s because some state lawmakers are looking for new streams of money to fix Connecticut’s budget. Other lawmakers oppose this move. They call it a money grab. They promise to block any legislation promoting tolls.

WSHU’s Senior Political Reporter Ebong Udoma has been following the highway toll debate closely, and he sat down with Morning Edition Host Tom Kuser to talk about what he’s learned.

Below is a transcript of their conversation.

Ebong, are we really going to have tolls again on Connecticut highways?

Well, Tom, it looks likely, if you listen to House Speaker Joe Aresimowicz, a Berlin Democrat. He’s in charge of the agenda in the House. And here’s what he told me.

I think we’re going to move forward with the plan to get tolls here in the state of Connecticut. Whether that’s empowering or enabling the Department of Transportation to start the groundwork of what that will look like, and what the fee structure will, and who the contractors will be that will handle it, or full-fledged authorizing the DOT to move forward with tolls in the state of Connecticut. I think the answer is somewhere in between.

‘Somewhere in between,’ what does Aresimowicz mean by that?

Basically, Aresimowicz believes that by 2020, Connecticut’s Special Transportation Fund will not have enough money to repair the state’s roads and bridges. He says that’s why it is necessary to reinstate tolls.

I would believe the average person here in the state of Connecticut will be seeing tolls within the next few years. We will try to offset, either by purchase of an E-Z Pass or by a rebate on their state tax returns for local residents, at least a portion of what they pay in tolls.

We know, Ebong, that one of the reasons tolls were removed from Connecticut’s highways back in the mid-1980s was because of several deadly accidents at the toll plazas. In one particular crash, in 1983 at the Stratford I-95 toll booth, a tractor trailer ran into a line of cars, killing six people and injuring four. Environmentalists also complained about pollution from the exhausts of vehicles backing up at those toll booths. How is this going to be different?

Toll proponents say there won’t be any of that because the new tolls would be totally electronic, requiring no toll booths and no slowing down of traffic. That also means there’d be no traffic backups and no increase in pollution from the exhaust of idling engines.

I’m sure that hardly satisfies the opponents of tolls.

It doesn’t. Here’s Republican Senate President Len Fasano of North Haven.

Tolls just don’t work!

And if tolls don’t work, how does Fasano propose the state fund its highways?

Fasano says he has an alternative GOP budget plan.

In a budget that we will be doing, we fully fund the Special Transportation Fund forever. We also have bonding that will allow us to do infrastructure projects in 30 years, $62 billion, which is a good amount of money.

$62 billion infrastructure fund. How does Fasano raise the money?

I guess we’ll find out when he releases his budget proposal. In the meantime, Fasano argues that if Connecticut reinstates tolls, it will lose federal highway funds.

Every dollar we put into federal highways, we get back $3. Massachusetts, for every dollar they pay in federal gas tax, they get back 20, 30 cents. For every dollar they put into the roadway, I don’t think they get any money back from the federal government because they have border tolls.

And you know Tom, Fasano’s fellow GOP senator, Toni Boucher of Wilton, is warning Democrats they’ll lose at the polls if they bring back tolls.

It’s really astounding to me that if I were politically savvy and I wanted to protect my seat, I certainly wouldn’t propose a toll.

She’s also predicting that any bill that includes tolls will be defeated.

I can’t speak for the House, and the speaker, of course, controls the agenda in the House. In the Senate we have a tie, so it’s going to have a lot more trouble, I think, getting through the Senate.

Does this mean we won’t see tolls this year?

It’s hard to predict. This year the state’s entire budget process is in flux. As a matter of fact, the budget talks within the Democratic Caucus have collapsed. In the meantime, Speaker Aresimowicz is indicating the toll measure might be inserted into a must pass budget bill. That prompted this response from Boucher.

That’s like a poison pill, putting that in a bill like that. Or someone really wants the other side of the aisle, or those that don’t like tolls, to vote against whatever budget proposal that they put out there.

I guess we’ll have to wait and see if that’s what happens.

Yes, we will.

Thank you, Ebong.

Thank you, Tom.