HARTFORD - Hundreds of people turned out for a hearing on whether Connecticut should have highway tolls.
The General Assembly’s 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’s office released a written transcript of the administration’s PowerPoint presentation. In that presentation, the state Department of Transportation commissioner introduced the toll plan at the hearing.
“We’re here to talk about the governor’s 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 “how” we should move forward, but we need to spend a few minutes on the ‘why’ – why are we having this conversation in the first place? Simply put, Connecticut’s 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’s 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,” Transportation Commissioner Joe Giulietti said.
Electronic tolling has become one of the hottest battles of the legislative session.
On Tuesday, state Sen. Gennaro Bizzarro, R-New Britain, urged residents to attend Wednesday’s public hearing and oppose the toll proposals.
“People need to know that tolls would not just be on the state borders, and tolls could be on all vehicles,” Bizzarro said. “This will be a mileage tax, plain and simple.”
Following the hearing on Wednesday, Bizzarro spoke at length about the governor’s plan on Lee Elci’s radio show. He said, in part, “Between 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.”
Following Wednesday’s hearing, state Rep. Chris Ziogas, D-Bristol, said the discussion around tolls is a work in progress but he agrees with the concept.
“Tolls are necessary for our infrastructure repair,” he said. “We 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.”
Ziogas said that he believes both sides agree that something needs to be done about infrastructure. The debate lies in the method. Ziogas said tolls are part of the solution and he has proposed using the tax code to help solve the problem.
State Rep. Cara Pavalock-D’Amato, R-Bristol, serves on the Appropriations Committee. She said a representative from the governor’s 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.
“To me, it seems like truck-only tolls were never going to be an option, even though he (Lamont) campaigned on truck- only tolls,” she said.
Many central Connecticut officials said their constituents were against tolls for in-state residents.
“I’m 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,” said state Rep. Whit Betts, R-Bristol.
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 “deemed approved.”
Senate Republican Leader Len Fasano, R-North Haven, released a statement following the hearing. He said, “If we want to get Connecticut moving forward today, if we want to create jobs now, if we want to start transportation projects immediately, tolls are not the solution. The Republican Prioritize Progress transportation funding plan is the only plan that would allow our state to launch a historic level of transportation projects literally today and is guaranteed to maintain that investment over the long term.”