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WASHINGTON — Congress nudged the door ajar for "gateway tolls" on Connecticut's borders.
Tucked into the 1,075-page transportation bill that recently cleared the House of Representatives are provisions that remove, under some circumstances, federal financial roadblocks that have stopped states like Connecticut from imposing new highway tolls.
"It is highway robbery," Michael Riley, a lobbyist for the state's trucking industry, said of the prospect of tolls.
Connecticut Gov. M. Jodi Rell has proposed an ambitious transportation agenda that would be funded by an increase in the gas tax — currently the only viable funding option on the table because of restrictions on tolls along federally subsidized highways.
Rell had not envisioned using tolls as a revenue source because gaining federal approval would have likely delayed the construction program.
"She has proposed a method of financing this plan, and we are ready to move forward," said Dennis Schain, a spokesman for the governor.
But the House bill would authorize a "congestion pricing pilot program" for
25 projects, and six more pilot programs — three for highway "reconstruction and rehabilitation" projects and three for new construction projects.
The Business Council of Fairfield County (SACIA), which led the fight 20 years ago to rid Connecticut of highway tolls following a tragic accident at the Stratford toll plaza on Interstate 95, now sees them as a possible option.
"We think the issue of tolling needs to be looked at," said Joseph McGee, vice president of public policy at SACIA.
A bill seeking such a study is before the General Assembly's transportation committee. McGee said it should be approved so that the issue can be examined in depth.
"We've been talking about gateway tolls as an option but we are not endorsing them yet," he said.
The gateway tolls, which would be installed on the New York, Massachusetts and Rhode Island borders, could net about $150 million a year, McGee said based on a cursory analysis.
Before the state jumps in, it would also have to consider the broader impact tolls would have on traffic congestion and safety.
In January 1983, a tractor-trailer
collided with three cars at the Stratford toll plaza, killing seven people. The eight toll plazas along I-95 were removed in October 1985. Four years later, tolls were abolished statewide.
McGee said that "EZPass" technology could be used to keep traffic moving through the automated tolls and allow for variable pricing to encourage travel at off-peak hours.
Connecticut's 20-year strategic plan for coastal-corridor transportation recommended a "value-pricing pilot program" on one or more of the limited-access highways in southwestern Connecticut.
"Connecticut can no longer rely largely on federal funding for the vast majority of its transportation capital and operating needs," the 2001 report said. "Implementing a new transportation strategy will require substantial financial investment in addition to current sources of support and greater flexibility in the use of current funding sources."
Riley said that gateway tolls are unfair to motorists who already pay for highway construction through state and federal gas taxes. Connecticut truckers pay 58 cents a gallon in federal and state taxes. "To
be nailed for a toll on top of that would be overkill," he said.
Riley said that truckers are willing to pay for increased highway capacity but don't think they should also pay for mass transit projects. About 40 percent of gas tax revenues go to bus and rail programs, he said.
"We are just absolutely opposed to putting in tolls without providing any additional capacity," he said.
The American Trucking Association lobbied heavily on Capitol Hill in opposition to easing federal restrictions on tolls. The ATA promoted an amendment that would have essentially restricted the use of tolls to pay for newly built "HOT" lanes that drivers could opt to use to avoid traffic congestion.
McGee said that building "HOT" lanes with voluntary tolls is not a realistic option in southwestern Connecticut, where land is not available for such expansions.
The American Road Builders Association opposed the amendment because it was too restrictive.
The amendment was backed by the American Conservative Union, Citizen Outreach, Council for Citizens Against Government Waste, FreedomWorks, Frontiers of Freedom Foundation, the National
Motorists Association, and the National Taxpayers Union. They object to allowing states to impose tolls on existing roads built with gas tax dollars.
The House rejected the amendment 265 to 155. Ironically, the House essentially approved the same amendment 11 months earlier by a 231-192 margin on a similar transportation bill that died on the calendar. In all, 72 lawmakers switched from favoring the amendment to opposing it.
All five Connecticut representatives opposed the original amendment. But Rep. Rob Simmons, R-2, swam against the tide and voted in favor of the amendment.
"Rob felt it would be wrong to allow these tolls not to go to new construction only," "Whether you are a trucker or motorist, you already pay a toll in the form of a gas tax," said Todd Mitchell, Simmons' chief of staff.
Simmons is the only member of the delegation on the House Transportation Committee.
Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-3, and Rep. Christopher Shays, R-4, voted against the amendment both times.
DeLauro said she "is hesitant" to support any toll proposal that could drive up the cost of commuting, according to spokeswoman
Shays said he opposed it because he believes states should decide whether they want tolls or not.
"It's something the state should have the option of considering," he said.
Shays is not advocating a gateway toll but noted that Connecticut currently does not capture revenue from anyone who drives through the state. Shays noted that on his drives between Connecticut and Washington he pays tolls in Maryland, Delaware, New Jersey and New York.
The Senate will act on its own transportation bill later this year and then a conference committee, including House and Senate members, will hammer out differences.