Tolls on the table again

Proposals to reinstate tolls on state roads have failed in recent years, but with Connecticut facing huge deficits, the Transportation Committee’s co-chairman says the idea is gaining momentum.

“If we implement them today we are talking millions of dollars this year,” said Rep. Antonio Guerrera, D-Rocky Hill, whose committee will hear testimony on tolls today.

The new toll system would be a far cry from the toll booths that dotted the Connecticut Turnpike before being removed in the 1980s after catastrophic crashes. There would be no toll booths or traffic jams, Guerrera said; drivers wouldn’t even have to slow down. There would just be an overhead sign and equipment to read license plates and E-ZPass transponders.

Guerrera wants to charge out-of-state cars $3 and in-state residents $1 at seven highway border locations. A study done last year estimates that a $3 border toll would net the state $9.2 billion over 30 years.

That’s revenue the state should seize, Guerrera said. “We need that money.”

Guerrera said 75 percent of the traffic crossing border points is from out-of-state. “They beat up our roads and we are left holding the check.”

But it’s unclear exactly how the electronic system would work and what impact establishing tolls might have on federal transportation funding.

Judd Everhart, spokesman for the Connecticut Department of Transportation, said tolls could put the federal assistance at risk. The state received $427 million in federal highway funds last fiscal year, he said.

“It’s likely federal funding would be overall reduced if you have a toll on an interstate,” he said.

While federal law generally bars funding for toll highways, Congress has carved out exemptions for new or renovation projects, according to a February 2009 analysis from state legislative researchers. There are also toll roads – such as the Massachusetts Turnpike – that receive federal dollars still because they existed prior to the federal Interstate Highway System.

Gambling revenue from the federal government is a risk Rep. David A. Scribner, R-Brookfield, does not support.

“This has real potential to jeopardize our current revenue stream at a time we can least afford it,” said the ranking Republican on the committee. “I do not view tolls as being a reliable or dependable source of revenue when you balance the pros and cons.”

The out-of-state travelers Guerrera targets are customers paying sales and gas taxes while they are in Connecticut, Scribner said. He cited the Danbury Fair mall, just two miles from the border with New York.

“That is a weekly destination for these people. If we start to charge people to get there they will think twice before shopping there,” he said.

There’s also the question of how the state would collect from drivers who don’t use a credit-card debiting system such as E-ZPass. Guerrera said the state could scan license plate numbers and send monthly bills.

Everhart says the state has never studied how to implement such a system.

“It could be a huge challenge. Even if you are able to scan everyone’s license and send them a bill, it would be hundreds of thousands of cars each day,” he said. “I am not saying the technology is not there. But it poses the potential for a lot of extra work… The state would need to undertake a major study to see if it can be done.”

Guerrera said he recognizes electronic tolls would create lots of paperwork, but believes the tolls would pay more than enough to cover the cost.

“That’s a debate I am ready to have,” he said. “It’s time to start looking outside the box.”