There’s been a lot of talk about bringing highway tolls back to Connecticut these last few days. The state outlawed tolls after seven people were killed in a fiery crash at a toll both on Interstate 95 in 1983. That tragedy has left Connecticut residents skeptical of tolls, and justifiably so. But in recent days, a lot of the discourse surrounding tolls has been misinformed, which has led to some confusion. And that’s not good for lawmakers who are trying to deal with serious congestion problems on some of the worst roads in the nation, not to mention an underfunded 30-year transportation plan.
Tolls at the borders
A bill introduced by State Rep. Tony Guerrera, which would bring tolls to interstates at Connecticut’s borders, was the main topic of conversation at a Transportation Committee hearing Wednesday. Guerrera, the committee’s co-chair, “says the legislation is needed to pay for highway projects because the state’s gas tax isn’t raising enough money.”
The argument for placing tolls at the border is that out-of-state residents would shoulder some of the load — as much as 75 percent, Guerrera argued. Connecticut residents pay tolls when they drive to New York and Massachusetts, so let the folks clogging up Interstates 84 and 95 between the Boston and New York metro areas pay their fair share, right? It’s good political calculus — especially since Guerrera represents Newington, Rocky Hill and Wethersfield, which are smack dab in the middle of the state (and would be minimally impacted by tolls at the state’s edges).
The argument against border tolls hinges on the fact that they disproportionately impact residents (and the economies) of border towns like Danbury and Enfield.
Both arguments are perfectly sound. The problem is, it’s wrong argument to be having.
Rep. Guerrera is right: the state’s gas tax isn’t bringing in enough revenue to maintain the state’s transportation system. But reinstating tolls in order to raise revenue misses the point of tolling. The goal of bringing back highway tolls must be congestion management.
When you look at tolling from a congestion management perspective rather than a revenue perspective, it completely changes the map. Instead of locating tolls in a way that aims to minimize its impact on intrastate travel, they should be placed A) where there’s a great deal of congestion, and B) like the proposed Move New York plan, where there are alternatives to driving available.
Interstate 84 southwest of Hartford has some of the worst congestion in the state, and you can’t talk about I-95 between New Haven and Greenwich without mentioning the traffic. What do these two corridors have in common: transit. The new CTfastrak bus rapid transit system runs parallel to I-84 between New Britain and Hartford, and I-95 runs alongside the Metro-North New Haven Line. Implementing variable-rate tolls in these congested corridors makes a lot more sense than putting them on I-395 between rural Thompson, Conn. and Webster, Mass.
Tolling technology has come a long way since the last toll booth was removed from the state in the 1980s. If and when Connecticut does decide to reinstate tolls, they’ll be collected electronically without needing old-fashioned toll booths. One needn’t travel too far from the Nutmeg State to find an example. The New York State Thruway has open-road tolling gantries in Orange County, New Jersey’s Garden State Parkway has them, and so does I-93 in New Hampshire. With open-road, all-electronic tolling, nobody has to stop or even slow down, says ConnDOT’s Tom Maziarz:
“We need to dispel that image from 30 years ago. If we’re going to be tolling in Connecticut, it will not be with manned booths, it will be all-electronic. There’ll be E-Z Pass readers on a gantry overhead, and cameras for those without E-Z Pass.”
But that hasn’t stopped Republican lawmakers from “referring to the dangers of highway tolls, even after the head of an international trade association for toll operators explained that modern tolls don’t have any effect on highway traffic flow.”
Public support for tolls
Because Connecticut hasn’t had tolls for over 25 years, and because Connecticut drivers aren’t used to having to pay tolls, there’s an assumption that the majority of drivers wouldn’t support tolls. And the polls used to back that up, though not by a very large margin. A 2010 Quinnipiac poll found that 56 percent of voters opposed putting tolls on Connecticut highways. But in 2013, another Quinnipiac poll found that 57 percent of voters support tolls if the revenue they generate is used for transportation purposes.
Connecticut legislators need to understand two things: first, voters overwhelmingly re-elect candidates who raise transportation revenue, and second, legislation limiting the use of the Special Transportation Fund solely for transportation purposes must be passed before pursuing toll legislation. In other words, the key to tolls is in the lockbox.