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CT highway tolls: What you need to know

March 19, 2019

Connecticut is debating adding electronic tolls to some of the state’s major highways. Here is what you need to know:

How do tolls work?

Toll is short for toll road, which is simply a roadway in which drivers pay to travel on.

Tolls are generally installed by states to collect money for transportation and infrastructure projects, and sometimes to limit the number of vehicles on a road. Tolls are collected either through a toll booth, or increasingly, by a toll gantry, which sends an electronic signal to a car’s transponder without the driver needing to stop. In states that utilize electronic toll collection, drivers without transponders are sent a bill in the mail requesting payment for traveling on a toll road.

The United States has more than 5,000 miles of toll roads, according to the International Bridge, Tunnel and Turnpike Association.

Why doesn’t Connecticut have tolls?

Connecticut is the only state along the East Coast that doesn’t collect tolls on highways. The majority of states have some form of tolling.

But Connecticut does have a history with toll roads. The Connecticut Turnpike, which ran mostly west to east, stopped collecting tolls in the mid-1980s. Wilbur Cross Parkway also once had tolls, which were removed in 1988.

A massive crash in 1983 at the then-Stratford toll booth that killed seven people drove the push to eliminate tolls, among other reasons.

What is the argument in favor of tolls?

In Connecticut, tolls are being proposed as a tool to help the state fund much-needed infrastructure and transportation projects. Newly-elected Gov. Ned Lamont has made it a major part of his proposal to address the state’s budgetary issues.

According to Lamont’s proposed Fiscal Year 2021 budget, 47 percent of state-maintained roadways are in less than good condition. Connecticut also has 248 bridges rated in poor condition, with nearly a third built prior to 1950. On Metro-North Railroad’s New Haven Line, the busiest commuter railroad in the country, 76 percent of rail bridges were built before 1940.

Some pro-toll legislators have suggested roads with tolls would lead to less cars, as more commuters opt for public transportation or cut down on inessential travel.

Lamont and others have touted tolls as a way to raise funds by collecting money, at least partially, from out-of-state drivers. He estimates that roughly 40 percent of toll revenue would come from non-Connecticut drivers.

According to a recent presentation by state Department of Transportation Commissioner Joseph Giulietti to the General Assembly Transportation Committee, “Connecticut drivers experience 81 million hours of delay per year while stuck in traffic,” which costs residents and businesses $1.9 billion per year.

The presentation further stated, “We subsidize other states for our use of their roads — there’s no reason why people from Rhode Island, New York and Massachusetts should use our roads for free while (Connecticut) residents pick up 100 (percent) of the tab to repair and upgrade them.”

Do tolls reduce congestion?

Economists have long advocated for tolls as a method to reduce the amount of drivers on a road or highway. The extent to which tolls reduce the number of travelers, however, is hard to predict.

One way to address congestion is through “congestion pricing,” which adjusts the cost per mile on a toll road based on the time of day. For instance, the price tag to travel on a toll road could be considerably more expensive during rush hour to dissuade some drivers from using the highway at that time.

Does Lamont’s plan include congestion pricing?

Yes. While details are still scarce, a November 2018 report from the state Department of Transportation laid out a potential pricing plan for commuters. The base rate for drivers without a Connecticut E-ZPass would be 6.3 cents per mile during off-peak hours and 7.9 cents during peak hours. The study defined peak hours as 6 a.m. to 9 a.m. and from 3 p.m. to 7 p.m.

The price would be higher for trucks, with medium-sized trucks and buses paying 8.8 cents per mile for off-peak hours, and 11 cents a mile for on-peak. Tractor-trailers would pay the most, at 17.6 cents per mile for off-peak and 22 cents per mile for on-peak.

Would Connecticut residents get a discount on the base rate?

Yes. Lamont said his plan would allow drivers with a Connecticut E-ZPass to get a 30 percent discount, meaning they would pay 4.4 cents per mile off-peak, and 5.5 cents a mile for peak hours.

However, there is no restriction preventing out-of-state residents from getting an E-ZPass in a different state, such as Connecticut, which means some drivers from New York and surrounding states could still benefit from the discount.

So, how much would it cost to go from Stamford to New Haven, for example?

Using the per-mile pricing estimates, it would cost a driver in a car without a Connecticut E-ZPass $2.58 during off hours and $3.23 during peak hours. Motorists with an E-ZPass would pay $1.80 if traveling at off-peak hours, and $2.25 for rush hour.

What is the argument against tolls?

The biggest anti-toll grassroots group, No Tolls CT, opposes the initiative because they see it as another tax on Connecticut residents. The state already has a steep gas tax, one of the highest in the country.

Republican lawmakers have characterized tolls as crippling for the trucking industry and as burdensome to Connecticut residents, who they say will feel the economic brunt of the system by having to pay the premium of higher-cost delivery while also paying the tolls themselves.

Trucking advocates have said trucks will seek alternate routes to avoid paying tolls, leading them onto local roads.

Many have expressed frustration with giving money to the state because of what they deem to be mismanagement of funds in the past, particularly with the transportation fund.

Besides state representatives and senators who have opposed tolls, some municipalities have also voted in favor of resolutions against tolls. Those communities include Stamford, Enfield and Sherman. Other communities such as Trumbull, Danbury, Wallingford and Cromwell are considering such a resolution.

So, how many tolls are we talking about?

Lamont presented a potential system of 53 toll-collecting gantries across Interstates 84, 91, and 95, and Merritt and Wilbur Cross parkways, for which construction could begin in 2022 at the earliest and cost $213 million to erect.

The governor says his tolling plan would raise $800 million a year and would include at least a 30 percent discount for drivers with a Connecticut E-ZPass.

Will these hypothetical tolls affect all drivers?

Yes. Lamont said he would support a toll only on tractor-trailer trucks during the campaign, but has since ditched that plan after an initial study found it would not raise enough funds to prevent the special transportation fund from becoming insolvent.

What else should I read to understand this issue?

Highway tolling raises privacy concerns for drivers

Dan Haar: Poll shows CT residents oppose tolls, maybe

Lamont, Dems hint at sweetener for CT tolls

CT residents want better roads, disagree on tolls

Lamont seeks private investors to fund tolls

Lamont: CT residents would get discount on tolls

CT toll plan ‘new territory’ for Federal Highway Administration

Republicans hope CT residents can lead anti-toll charge

State Rep. floats eliminating aid for anti-toll cities

Stamford reps to Hartford: No highway tolls

Bipartisan Stamford reps come out against tolls

Toll opponents protest senator’s bill

Republicans stand united against CT tolls

No tolls if you live within 10 miles? It’s possible

Reaction swift and fiery as Lamont swings toward broad tolls

Who is covering this story?

Hearst Connecticut Media’s transportation reporter, Ignacio Laguarda, can be reached at 203- 964-2264, by email at ignacio.laguarda@stamfordadvocate.com or on Twitter at @ilaguarda.

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