HARTFORD - A state panel has agreed to borrow up to $10 million to study the possibility of reinstating tolls on Connecticut's highways, despite strong opposition from Republican politicians who argue it's a waste of taxpayer money considering there will be a new administration and General Assembly in January.
Wednesday's vote by the State Bond Commission marked a small victory for the outgoing Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, who called for the study in a recent executive order. The Democrat, who chairs the commission, has argued it makes sense to begin the process of studying electronic tolls now and determining how much money they could generate because the state's main transportation account will not have enough money to cover the cost of many transportation infrastructure projects in five years.
“Our Special Transportation Fund needs a new, reliable revenue source,” said Malloy, noting how recent fixes to the fund addressed only immediate, short-term concerns. “In order to ensure our bridges don't collapse or close due to unsafe conditions, and to ensure that our highways remain open and operational, we need to explore additional revenue options.”
Malloy, who is not seeking a third term in office, acknowledged it will likely take nine months to find a vendor to conduct the study. That would give his successor or a future legislature time to scrap it. The General Assembly last session failed to vote on a tolling study bill. Tolls have become a hot-button issue in the 2018 governor's race, with both Republican and Democratic candidates calling the study wasteful spending.
Republican Rep. Chris Davis of Ellington, a commission member, tried unsuccessfully to prevent Wednesday's vote. He argued the legislature made it clear that it doesn't support tolls by not acting on the study. He said his constituents don't see a need to spend more money for another analysis, pointing out how millions of dollars have already been spent on previous tolling studies.
“Ten million dollars, overall, is a lot of money, at least where I come from,” he said.
Malloy suggested the study might not ultimately cost $10 million. He said his administration wanted to reserve enough money to attract “the best people” who can craft a study that would comply with federal standards, in case the state ultimately decides to seek federal permission to reinstate some form of tolling. In the 1980s, the legislature ordered various toll stations removed from Connecticut highways. The last toll was ultimately paid in 1989.
Connecticut's study comes after neighboring Rhode Island began tolling just trucks in June. The state is currently operating two electronic truck tolls out of a planned 14-gantry system. The first two are located on Interstate 95 in Exeter and in Hopkinton, which are both close to the Connecticut border. Rhode Island billed truckers about $625,000 in the first month of tolling. A national trucking industry group is fighting Rhode Island over the new tolls in court, arguing large commercial tractor trailers are being unfairly targeted, therefore violating the Commerce Clause of the U.S. Constitution.
Malloy said Wednesday that the Rhode Island lawsuit is another reason why Connecticut needs a comprehensive study.
“I think that we need to study the implications of a tolling system and that the legislature and future governors will make appropriate decisions about what type of tolls, what will be charged for tolls, what will not be charged for tolls and the like,” said Malloy, who has not been a strong proponent of tolls over his seven-and-a-half years in office, despite the criticism he is receiving now.
Senate Republican Leader Len Fasano argued that Malloy has become “so blinded by his sudden, end-of-term vision to pickpocket the people of Connecticut through tolls” that he can't see the value in other ideas to financially shore up the state's transportation fund. Republican lawmakers have proposed a plan they say reprioritizes state transportation spending. Malloy's transportation commissioner, however, said it falls short of what's needed.