March 13, 2017

Time to bring back tolls to CT

Connecticut has an aging transportation infrastructure problem and the only logical way to help solve it is by reinstating tolls.

With the state's special transportation fund projected to become insolvent in three to four years and a debt crisis eroding state budget revenues, Connecticut must find new ways to invest in its infrastructure, or it risks having a transportation system untenable to employers.

Already, Connecticut has some of the worst highway bottlenecks and highest congestion costs in the country. The problem will only be exacerbated as billions of dollars in unfunded transportation initiatives remain mired in the project pipeline.

Businesses, of course, are wary of any attempts by state government to raise new revenues. We are as well, which is why any proposal to add tolls to Connecticut's interstates must be accompanied by a legally binding promise from lawmakers to use those funds strictly for maintaining roads, bridges and highways.

A transportation revenues "lockbox" has been talked about for years, but has never come to fruition. Its time has come.

Maintaining safe, reliable and efficient infrastructure is as much a public safety issue as it is an economic one. In a 2014 survey by the Connecticut Business and Industry Association, businesses identified traffic as their top transportation concern.

A prime reason this small state has a congestion problem is because our highways are old and weren't designed to carry the passenger loads they shoulder today.

The of a mile stretch known as the I-84 Hartford viaduct, for example, was built in the 1960s and is coming to the end of its useful life. When it was first developed, the viaduct was designed to carry about 50,000 cars a day. Today, 175,000 motorists traverse the interstate daily during the workweek.

The state Department of Transportation has a $5 billion plan to remake the viaduct. Meantime, U.S. Rep. John Larson has pitched a $10 billion to $12 billion plan to build a tunnel through Hartford. Funding sources for either idea remain elusive, while tolls could raise $62 billion over 25 years, according to one study.

Connecticut, of course, previously hosted tolls but they were hastily expunged from our highways after a 1983 tractor-trailer accident killed seven people at the I-95 Stratford toll plaza. With new technology, however, tolls are a lot safer today. State lawmakers are currently considering several bills to adopt electronic tolling, something the state of Massachusetts now utilizes. If you take a drive to Boston today, you'll no longer get stuck in long toll lines. Instead, overhead sensors track and charge drivers via their E-ZPass or the state of Massachusetts sends a bill in the mail.

There is no reason Connecticut can't adopt similar technology, especially when all of our neighboring states use tolls to help fund their transportation infrastructure. Without that revenue source, Connecticut is at a disadvantage (we are also paying higher gas taxes to make up for it).

In particular, Connecticut needs to collect more revenues from out-of-state drivers who use our highways but don't help pay for them. That's why we think tolls should be placed at our borders, rather than in central Connecticut. Let's have commuters from New York and Massachusetts help foot our transportation bill.

If tolls were to be adopted in Hartford, a congestion pricing strategy would make most sense. That method, which has been implemented by other cities, can take several different forms, but the basic idea is to charge higher tolls during peak demand hours to encourage drivers to travel at less congested times of day or use public transit.

More specifically, we'd like to see a system that gives drivers a choice to use specially designed, electronically tolled express lanes. One possible option could be converting HOV lanes into tolled thoroughfares.

Tolls will be a tough sell in Connecticut, but without more revenues our aging — even decaying — transportation infrastructure poses both safety and economic threats to the state.

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