HARTFORD - Hundreds of people turned out for a hearing on whether Connecticut should have highway tolls.
The General Assembly‚Äôs Transportation Committee listened to testimony Wednesday on two tolling bills, including one proposed by Democratic Gov. Ned Lamont that could lead to about 52 gantries on approximately 330 miles of roadway along Interstates 91, 95, 84 and Route 15.
In coordination with the public hearing, the governor‚Äôs office released a written transcript of the administration‚Äôs presentation. In that presentation, the state Department of Transportation commissioner introduced the toll plan at the hearing.
‚ÄúWe‚Äôre here to talk about the governor‚Äôs bill, HB 7202, which would enable Connecticut to construct tolls along several highways. But we believe the dialogue should be much broader. We believe tolling is ‚Äúhow‚ÄĚ we should move forward, but we need to spend a few minutes on the ‚Äėwhy‚Äô ‚Äď why are we having this conversation in the first place? Simply put, Connecticut‚Äôs aging transportation infrastructure and lack of sustainable, recurring revenue in the Special Transportation Fund has hampered our ability to just maintain a state of good repair, let alone make the investments necessary to move our state‚Äôs residents and the economy. This lack of funding to maintain our infrastructure leads to major capital costs and the need to entirely revamp systems, which is not strategically smart or a financial best practice,‚ÄĚ transportation commissioner Joe Giulietti said.
Electronic tolling has become one of the hottest battles of the legislative session.
Following Wednesday‚Äôs hearing, state Rep. Chris Ziogas, D-Bristol, said the discussion around tolls is a work in progress but he agrees with the concept.
‚ÄúTolls are necessary for our infrastructure repair,‚ÄĚ he said. ‚ÄúWe need that money to move forward. If we can tap into the money of people passing through the state it will be beneficial. If we can improve our infrastructure then we can attract more businesses and then we all win.‚ÄĚ
Ziogas said that he believes both sides agree that something needs to be done about infrastructure. The debate lies in the method.
State Rep. Cara Pavalock-D‚ÄôAmato, R-Bristol, serves on the appropriations committee. She said a representative from the governor‚Äôs office came to testify on tolls and informed the committee that truck only tolls were not an option. According to that testimony, truck only tolls would be financially insolvent within 10 years. The state cannot issue bonds if there is a projection of insolvency.
‚ÄúTo me, it seems like truck only tolls were never going to be an option, even though he (Lamont) campaigned on truck only tolls,‚ÄĚ she said.
Many central Connecticut officials said their constituents were against tolls for in-state residents.
‚ÄúI‚Äôm looking to see if we can find any common ground, but of the people from Bristol and Plymouth who have contacted me, 90 percent of them are vehemently opposed to tolls,‚ÄĚ said state Rep. Whit Betts, R-Plymouth, Bristol. ‚ÄúIt is very unfortunate to me that the ones arguing for doing the tolls seem to ignore the idea that there is more than one option.‚ÄĚ
Betts said he is also concerned about a provision where unless the speaker of the House and the president of the Senate bring up the toll legislation for a vote within 15 days, the Department of Transportation can move forward on a study and planning and it would be ‚Äúdeemed approved.‚ÄĚ
‚ÄúTo me, that would be unprecedented and a total end run around of democracy,‚ÄĚ said Betts. ‚ÄúTaxpayers will be outraged if they use that kind of tactic. It would be a clear case of taxation without representation.‚ÄĚ
Betts said that he, ‚Äúlike many people in Bristol and Plymouth‚ÄĚ is skeptical that the money raised by tolls would stay in a transportation fund. In the past, he said this money was taken out to pay for deficits in the general fund.
State Sen. Henri Martin, R-Bristol, Plainville, and Plymouth, said that both parties agree that the state‚Äôs infrastructure is in ‚Äúdire need‚ÄĚ of repair.
‚ÄúThe bottom line is how do you pay the bill,‚ÄĚ he said. ‚ÄúThey want to institute tolls and we‚Äôre saying that‚Äôs a mistake. The proposed bill would let them have gantries every 6 or 7 miles along 95, 91, 84, and parts of 15. They way it is written would also leave the doors open to add more roads.‚ÄĚ
On Tuesday, state Sen. Gennaro Bizzarro, R-District 6, urged residents to attend Wednesday‚Äôs public hearing and oppose the toll proposals.
‚ÄúPeople need to know that tolls would not just be on the state borders, and tolls could be on all vehicles,‚ÄĚ Bizzarro said. ‚ÄúThis will be a mileage tax, plain and simple.‚ÄĚ
Following the hearing Bizzarro spoke at length about the governor‚Äôs plan on Lee Elci‚Äôs radio show. He said, in part, ‚ÄúBetween the tolls and all the proposals to increase taxes, people have just had enough in the state. We are trying to figure out ways to make it easier for hard working middle class people and their families and now we are going to tax them on their commute to work. These costs are just not going to be absorbed and disappear. They are going to flow right back in, the consumers are going to end up paying and then there are lots of other issues. That presupposes that we are going to be able to efficiently raise revenue by implementing the system. I think at the end of the day we are going to end up increasing the bureaucracy at a point and time where we really need to be looking at ways to make government leaner and more efficient.‚ÄĚ