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OPINION: "A Tolling Question" by Craig Fishbein

There’s a saying at the Capitol that no legislation is truly dead until midnight on the final day of session – when state law requires the legislature to stop working, and resets the calendar to zero in anticipation of the next session. This year, as is every year, many ideas were left to wither and die on the vine for a myriad of reasons that range from political to fiscal.

Thankfully, one proposal that died as the clock ran out, was to institute tolls on Connecticut highways. There were a few different bills, but the underlying theme of all was to install tolls all over the state, and tax drivers for (egads!) daring to travel to and from their work, their appointments, their shopping, or merely to visit friends or family who happen to live a few towns away. These were also made under the guise of bringing in revenue to repair Connecticut’s crumbling roads and bridges.

Now, some may argue a toll isn’t a “tax.” I wholeheartedly disagree; a toll is absolutely a tax. Drivers who use toll roads are paying an extra penalty – a tax – on top of the enormous taxes they’re already paying on gas, licenses and permits, and the property tax for merely owning a vehicle in the first place.

Proposals show as many as 80 toll gantries on nearly all of Connecticut’s major roadways, including Interstates 91, 95, 84, 395, 691 and Routes 15, 8, 2, and more. Toll fees would (presently) range between 3.5 cents per mile to 11.8 cents per mile. Therefore, an ordinary commuter trip between Hartford and New Haven would cost about $800 or more annually.

But even that estimate is controlled by the price charged by the tolling system, which is hard to know because they are also proposing a congestion pricing toll system. Congestion price tolling is where the toll prices raise or decline based upon the amount of vehicles on the roadway. Congestion pricing could mean an extra 25% more per mile for driving during designated “rush hour” times. Of course, taking into account that rush hour will be when most of Connecticut’s residents must get to and from work that means about 70% of all toll revenue collected will come from Connecticut residents.

Some say, how about just border tolls? No can do. When Connecticut agreed to remove its tolls in 1983, it was authorized to charge one of the highest gas taxes in the nation, and to receive a greater portion of federal transportation dollars. The installation of border tolls now would jeopardize $100s of Millions is past and future federal funds.

Toll proponents’ claim a “lock box” will be set up to ensure collected funds will be used for the proper purposes. History shows that a “lock box” is only as good as the lock that secures it. If everyone has a key, there’s no telling how long it will remain filled. In 1983, the current Special Transportation Fund was set up as a dedicated fund to finance the state’s transportation infrastructure program and operate the DOT and DMV. By 1987, the fund was being used for non-transportation purposes. Plus, any revenue gained from enacting and erecting tolls will be years away, have no impact on the state’s current fiscal crisis and will undoubtedly add more state bureaucracy and the associated salaries and pension costs that come with that expansion of government

Tolls are also a bad idea because people will naturally try to avoid them, putting greater stress on local roadways, leading to greater local congestion, and resulting in municipal tax increases

Just over a month ago, even though the legislature did not authorize tolls during session, nor did it appropriate any monies for the same, the Governor convened the 10 member State Bonding Commission (which he Chairs) for the purposes of borrowing $10 Million for another study of tolls. (FYI, there have been at least three such studies already completed within recent years.) Shortly thereafter, I joined my House Republican colleagues in signing a petition to go into special session to try and stop the borrowing. Unfortunately though, the House Democrats refused to sign the petition, a special session was not authorized, and the Governor’s continued reckless borrowing goes on, unchallenged.

Thankfully in 2018, tolls succumbed to the stroke of midnight. Unfortunately though, I’m confident they’ll be resurrected as early as January, 2019. As a very famous Yankee once said, “It ain’t over till it’s over.”

Fishbein for Connecticut - Jo-Anne L. Rusczek, Treasurer - Approved by Craig Fishbein
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