The Transportation Committee has raised four bills about tolls in Connecticut, and all are scheduled for a public hearing on Wednesday, March 14. This year, the tolls debate is taking place against the backdrop of statements by the governor and the DOT that the state’s fund designated for transportation (STF) is running dry, and that services and projects must be cut and mass transit fares increased if there is no legislative action to increase revenue.
Whether you are among those who do not want tolls in Connecticut under any circumstances, whether you believe they are necessary, or if you’re still making up your mind, you deserve to have complete information on the proposals before you in bill form, and more generally.
To that end, I’d like to accomplish two things in this email. First, I’ll provide a reminder of a few background facts important to the current discussion of tolls in Connecticut. Second, I will provide you with an overview of the bills currently before the General Assembly.
* Federal regulations prohibit Connecticut from placing tolls just at the state’s borders.
* With a few limited exceptions, the only kind of tolls that Connecticut is presently has federal authorization to approve and implement are congestion pricing tolls, which must be demonstrably designed to manage traffic flow.
* Only electronic tolls are on the table for discussion.
* Tolls cannot be an immediate source of revenue, as they would take between 4 and 7 years (according to the DOT Commissioner) to implement. They also entail substantial up-front capital expenditures.
* No complete proposal for implementing tolls has been presented for legislative approval. One proposal that has been widely circulated was presented to the DOT by DCM Smith, a firm it consulted on the subject. This document includes maps that show 11 tolls between Danbury and Hartford on I-84 and 10 and 12 tolls respectively on the Merritt Parkway and I-95 between Greenwich and New Haven. It is not presently clear, however, whether this or any other proposal will be promoted by the administration, the DOT, or any legislators.
Bills now before the Transportation Committee
The bills now under consideration and scheduled for hearing all deal with the broad principle of authorizing tolls in Connecticut, but do not provide any particulars in terms of number of tolls, location of tolls, rates and how they would vary, construction plans, penalties for non-payment, or detailed construction and administration costs. These are the bills:
SB 389: An Act Establishing the Connecticut Transportation Authority
HB 5393: An Act Establishing the Connecticut Transportation Finance Authority to Maintain Major State Highways
HB 5046 (governor’s bill): An Act Concerning the Sustainability of Transportation Projects
HB 5391: An Act Concerning Transportation Infrastructure
* SB 389 and HB 5393 are very similar. They both propose the creation of a quasi-public agency, or transportation authority, governed by a board of political appointees who would hire an executive director and any staff. The agency’s purpose would be to construct, maintain, and operate highways and electronic tolling systems, and it would be charged with using toll revenues to pay for the costs of operation, maintenance, improvement, and administration. The agency would keep funds for these purposes in its own account, be able to employ people, issue bonds, and buy or lease property, and would be responsible for establishing toll rates, user classifications, and penalties for non-payment.
* HB 5393 stipulates that the quasi-public agency will not be created “until the General Assembly authorizes the implementation of electronic tolling systems”. This provision is not in SB 389.
* HB 5046 and HB 5391 both authorize the DOT to implement an electronic tolling system and gives it all the responsibilities assigned by the other bills to a quasi-public transportation authority. They both require toll revenues to be deposited into the STF, rather than a separate agency account.
* HB 5046 authorizes the DOT to implement tolls immediately without any other legislative action, and gives DOT absolute authority going forward in most matters related to tolls.
* HB 5391 allows the DOT to implement tolls only after the DOT has completed studies and submitted a complete tolling proposal to the legislature, and the legislature has approved it.
* HB 5391 also includes a provision decreasing the gas tax by one cent per year for five years. But this would take effect only after the implementation of tolls and only if and when the resources of the STF exceed two and one-half times the estimated debt service payments on the state’s transportation-related debt – a day likely very far away.
* HB 5391, shifting to another subject, accelerates a planned transfer of motor vehicle sales and use taxes into the STF.
What is wrong with this picture?
All of the bills under consideration share a few features. They all move the state forward in varying degrees toward approving tolls, as a general concept. They all give responsibility for determining number, location, and pricing of tolls to unelected bodies, and remove the legislature from the process once the concept is approved, placing the decisions on these matters in the hands of political appointees.
But none of these bills tells us what implementing tolls would cost, or what revenue they would provide. And none of them tells commuters, taxpayers, and motorists what this would cost them every day. In fact, they impose no limits on what that cost might be.
I don’t think it’s fair to expect you to make informed decisions when you don’t have complete information. Tolls are not an abstract concept. They are a tool for raising revenue that comes at a cost to residents. I believe you should have a clear picture of both the costs and the benefits. Because that picture is not clear, even partially, I cannot support these proposals on your behalf.
If you would like to submit written testimony on any of these bills in the next few days, you can send an email to email@example.com, and copy me if you like at firstname.lastname@example.org. You should reference the bill numbers in your subject line, and include your name and town in the body of your testimony.
Please don’t hesitate to contact me if you’d like to discuss tolls, transportation funding, or any other issue further. I am always happy to hear from you.