Malloy does what legislators won’t: Orders $10 million study of tolling

Modern tolls use overhead gantries like this one on the Massachusetts Turnpike (Arnold Reinhold / Creative Commons)

Gov. Dannel P. Malloy ordered state agencies Tuesday to develop a comprehensive, $10 million study of electronic tolling that would examine pricing, locations, and the potential to capture revenue from out-of-state motorists.

The governor cannot implement tolls without legislative approval. Nonetheless his order resurrects many elements of a tolling measure that died on the House of Representatives’ calendar when lawmakers adjourned on May 9.

Malloy, who is not seeking re-election, said “During this past legislative session, we heard time and again from legislators that they wished for more information regarding electronic tolling, including specific recommendations with respect to its possible implementation. … As Connecticut’s General Assembly and next governor consider how to address the future of our state’s transportation funding, this study and plan will prove to be invaluable in their endeavor to make an informed decision.”

The study would:

  • Assess the impact of installing electronic tolls on Interstates 84, 91 and 95, the Wilbur Cross Parkway, the Merritt Parkway, and any other limited access highway identified by the Department of Transportation.
  • Explore options for providing discounts and tax credits to Connecticut residents — shifting a greater share of the burden onto out-of-state motorists.
  • Evaluate options to reduce motor fuel taxes in the event tolls are installed.
  • Assess any environmental impacts related to tolls.

Malloy says the study would be financed with $10 million in bonding. The State Bond Commission, which is chaired by the governor, is scheduled to consider that funding at its July 25 meeting.

ctmirror.org

Gov. Dannel P. Malloy (file photo)

The governor has been pressing lawmakers throughout his second term to commit to a two-to-three-decade-long rebuild of the state’s aging, overcrowded transportation infrastructure — something the governor says cannot be accomplished without a major new funding source.

He began warning legislators and businesses last November that the budget’s Special Transportation Fund — absent new funding — is headed for insolvency in the coming years.

Even though lawmakers voted in May to divert more sales tax receipts from the General Fund to the transportation program, the administration says that isn’t enough to cover all of the major projects starting in the next five years. These include replacement of the elevated portion of I-84 in Hartford, widening of I-95 in southwestern Connecticut, and repairs to the “Mixmaster” junction of I-84 and Route 8 in Waterbury.

DOT officials have said very preliminary estimates show that tolls could be fully installed by 2022, and could yield $600 million to $800 million per year in new revenue. The additional sales tax funding legislators approved involves just under $30 million this fiscal year, but climbs to $120 million by 2019-20.

“We need to be truthful with the people we were elected to represent,” Malloy said Tuesday. “Without transforming the way we fund our highways, we will be unable to pay for the large-scale construction and rehabilitation projects that our state needs to ensure continued safe travel while attracting businesses and growing our economy.”

The governor earned praise from two House Democratic leaders who pushed for tolls this year to fund a major transportation rebuild.

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Rep. Tony Guerrera, left, talking to House Speaker Joe Aresimowicz about his tolls bill last May

“Addressing our outdated transportation infrastructure is critical to our future economy, a top priority of our business community, and there is no disagreement that many of our roads and bridges are in disrepair,” said House Speaker Joe Aresimowicz, D-Berlin.  “I’ve been calling for more information to see what options we have, and with transportation funding drying up it makes sense to have an honest conversation about how a toll plan that has out of state drivers paying a large chunk of the cost would work.”

Rep. Tony Guerrera, D-Rocky Hill, House chair of the Transportation Committee, said most legislators recognize the additional sales tax transfer is a short-term fix.

“We all knew that,” he said. “We knew that wasn’t going to last beyond a three- or four-year period.”

House Democratic leadership crafted a bill this past spring that would have directed the Department of Transportation to develop an electronic tolling plan. And while the measure did not specify all details — including the number of tolling stations — it said the plan would have to establish tolls at least on Interstates 84, 91 and 95 and the Wilbur Cross and Merritt Parkways.

The bill also called for a base charge of 11.8 cents per mile during peak periods and 9.4 cents off-peak. Any motorist whose license plate is registered with the state tolling system would pay rates of 9.9 cents during peak periods and 7.9 cents off peak.

But it also included a discounts or 30 percent and more for Connecticut residents only who purchased special passes.

A final component of the bill was a requirement that any tolling plan return to the 2019 legislature for final consideration.

Republican legislators have been unanimous in their opposition to tolls. The GOP has countered that Connecticut must better prioritize its transportation program and borrowing in general to free up more dollars for infrastructure improvements. But this also could mean significantly less borrowing for municipal school construction, capital projects at public colleges and universities, state building maintenance, and farmland and open space preservation.

Democrats hold a small majority in the House while the Senate is divided evenly 18-18. And with some Democrats in both chambers wary of tolls, House leaders opted not to bring the tolls measure to a vote this year.

“Governor Malloy had eight years to fix the state’s transportation problems — problems he worsened by diverting transportation dollars to spend elsewhere,” Senate Republican leader Len Fasano of North Haven said Tuesday.

During his first term in office, Malloy and a Democrat-controlled legislature did scale-back previously approved increases in transfers to the transportation program to help balance the General Fund.

mark pazniokas / ctmirror.org file photo

House Minority Leader Themis Klarides, R-Derby and Senate Republican leader Len Fasano of North Haven (file photo)

“This is an irresponsible and egotistical waste of money as he heads out of office,” Fasano added. “Governor Malloy needs to get on his horse, ride into the sunset and leave taxpayers alone.”

“Borrowing millions to study how tolls would impact commuters is frivolous if not ridiculous,” said House Minority Leader Themis Klarides, R-Derby. “We’ve seen other studies, we’ve heard from consultants. We already know the answer to the question he’s asking: it’s going to make it even more expensive to live in Connecticut. Republicans have spelled out how we’d fix roads and bridges—by prioritizing existing dollars.”

Joe Sculley, president of the state’s largest trucking coalition, the Connecticut Motor Transport Association, said the governor’s new study is “a waste of $10 million.”

Sculley, whose group also argues transportation upgrades can be paid for by prioritizing state borrowing for transportation, said he believes the public’s opposition to tolls is clear.

“We’re spending even more money, clearly, on things businesses and residents in Connecticut don’t want,” he said.

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