Reps panel seeks to send message to Hartford: No tolls
STAMFORD — A two-and-a-half hour debate among city lawmakers about whether the state should install highway tolls provides a hint of what is to come in Hartford: conflicting facts; incomplete information; anger over another tax vs. practicality over how to fix aging infrastructure and ease traffic congestion.
Members of the Board of Representatives’ Transportation Committee Thursday night voted 6-0, with one abstention, to recommend that the full board pass a resolution urging the state Legislature to abandon a plan to install tolls.
The board often takes the recommendations of committees, but it’s not clear that will happen with the no-tolls resolution.
Rep. Steven Kolenberg, R-16, the committee chairman, summed it up.
“Some people think tolls are more necessary than unpleasant. Other people think they are more unpleasant than necessary,” Kolenberg said.
And so the argument went.
It began with two public speakers. One was Patrick Sasser, a city firefighter who owns a small excavating company and co-owns with his brothers a small trucking company. Sasser began fighting tolls a year ago and has since founded a grassroots group, No Tolls CT, that is organizing opposition statewide.
The state is seeking to pay for long-neglected road, rail and bridge projects by doing the easiest thing — imposing another tax “on the poor, the working class and the middle class people of this state,” Sasser said.
More, little is clear about how tolls will affect local roads, Sasser said.
“They want to use congestive tolling. It means that during peak times the toll price will be jacked up to force people off (Interstate) 95 and the Merritt Parkway and onto city streets,” Sasser said. “Stamford is already congested with traffic.”
He cited a November news report about Pennsylvania, where tolls have been raised 11 years in a row, a trend expected to continue through 2044. In the story the governor complains that turnpike tolls are driving business away.
Sasser asked representatives why anyone would want to give toll revenue to the Connecticut Department of Transportation. He pointed to the latest annual highway report from the Reason Foundation, a libertarian think tank. It says Connecticut has the highest administrative costs per mile in the U.S. — $99,400. The national average is $10,900, according to the foundation.
The second speaker, state Sen. Alexandra Bergstein, a newly elected Greenwich Democrat who represents a portion of North Stamford, is on the opposite side of the toll debate. Bergstein submitted a bill at the Capitol to authorize electronic tolls.
Bergstein agreed with Sasser that the state’s method of funding and fixing its infrastructure is failing. She supports tolls because the revenue will help repair the 57 percent of Connecticut roads that are in poor condition, and the 338 bridges that are rated structurally deficient, Bergstein said.
“Let’s disrupt that system and create a new system” that includes a Connecticut Infrastructure Bank, Bergstein said. It’s similar to the Connecticut Green Bank, which works with private investors to create low-cost, long-term financing to maximize the use of public funds for clean-energy projects.
That’s a good idea, said Rep. Bradley Michelson, R-1, vice chairman of the committee. But it’s why tolling should wait.
“We should create the bank first and then consider tolls,” Michelson said. “It shouldn’t be, ‘Let’s toll everyone now and hope it works.’ We’re doing this out of order.”
Representatives said their constituents don’t want another tax when they are already living paycheck to paycheck.
Bergstein said a Connecticut resident who commutes 50 miles a day, five days a week would pay about $600 a year in tolls. But the same person now pays $2,300 a year in lost time in traffic and excessive fuel costs.
Some questioned the $2,300 estimate, and other figures. Sasser, for example, said studies indicate that 70 percent of toll revenue would come from Connecticut residents. Bergstein said 40 percent. A state DOT report says 60 percent and Gov. Ned Lamont’s budget proposal on Wednesday reduced that figure to as low as 50 percent.
Bergstein said tolls could help get some trucks off the highways during peak travel times.
Rep. J.R. McMullen, R-18, said they won’t.
“The trucks have to go someplace,” McMullen said. “Tolls aren’t going to change anything.”
“They will travel at night,” Bergstein said.
“They travel at night now,” McMullen said.
It’s often not possible for trucks to work at night, said Rep. Tony Spadaccini, R-14, who once co-owned a car-transport company in the area.
“We couldn’t run the trucks at night because no one was there to accept the cars,” Spadaccini said.
“Maybe they will not choose to change their behavior but now trucks are doing all that traveling for free, and your tax dollars are paying for it,” Bergstein said. “Connecticut is the only state on the East Coast with no tolls.”
Some representatives said the state should try other things first.
Rep. Denis Patterson, D-6, said Connecticut under-uses its harbors and freight rail lines, and relies too much on the trucks that clog the highways.
Bergstein said fixing the infrastructure and easing traffic will attract business to the state. Michelson said lowering taxes will spur business activity far more.
Rep. Rob Roqueta, D-4, said it’s all speculation.
“We have no way to know what the outcome will be,” Roqueta said. “I lived in New York half my life. New York has tolls, and the traffic is worse than here, the emissions are worse.”
Roqueta said he opposes tolls.
But Rep. Bob Lion, D-19, said it’s too soon for the board to take a stand.
“I will vote against this resolution (when the full board meets) because it’s too early in the process; it’s before this has even been flushed out by committees at the state level,” Lion said. “First it was 83 toll gantries, then it was 53 toll gantries. I think we have to consider whether we have all the information needed to take a position on this.”
To make the board’s position clear, Rep. Nina Sherwood, D-8, proposed an amendment that says the cost of infrastructure improvements should “not be funded by those who cannot afford to pay it, but by means and ideas meant to relieve the citizenry of that burden.”
The full board will take up the amended tolls resolution when it meets at 8 p.m. March 4 in Legislative Chambers, fourth floor, Stamford Government Center, 888 Washington Blvd.