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Editorial: Halt the march to tolls in Connecticut

March 24, 2017 GMT

Let’s be clear about this: A toll is a tax, plain and simple.

Connecticut took another step down that road last Friday when the Transportation Committee voted to approve establishing electronic tolls on the state’s highways and slapping another tax on already beleaguered residents.

This group of House and Senate members acknowledged as much by offering to lower the 25-cent gasoline tax by half a penny for each of five years. That is not much relief. For a 12-gallon fill-up, the break would amount to 6 cents. That would hardly offset a toll bill to drivers, not even for one trip.

Reinstituting tolls has been bandied about in Hartford for many years. But the issue has taken on urgency as the state faces a chasm of a budget deficit while looking for ways to finance the governor’s 30-year, $100 billion plan to fix and improve the state’s inadequate infrastructure. A panel appointed by the governor last year recommended tolls as a potential source of revenue.

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Since 1985 Connecticut has been toll-free. The move was in response to a fiery accident on Jan. 19, 1983 at the Stratford toll booth plaza that killed seven people.

Today’s technology removes the safety concern as overhead cameras replace the need for booths. Delays vanish as vehicles do not even need to slow down.

Although the technology makes tolls safer and less cumbersome, it does not make tolls right. Sure, tolls would throw new coins into the pot from out-of-state drivers, but would amount to a tax on state residents.

If an argument is to be made for tolls, it is that nearby states — New York, Massachusetts, New Jersey, to name a few — have tolls. So why should Connecticut give trucks and other traffic a free ride? That’s a persuasive argument, but not enough.

Towns along the state’s borders would be disproportionately affected. A valid concern is for increased traffic in neighborhoods as drivers get off the highway to avoid tolls. Residents who cross the state line for work or other purposes would pay much more than someone living in the interior of the state.

The chair of the Transportation Committee, state Rep. Antonio Guerrera of the interior Rocky Hill, a long time proponent of tolls, said the tolls would be scattered around the state and residents would get discounts. That remains to be seen, if this tax bill moves forward.

It passed the committee in a close party-line vote and now goes to the full House of Representatives. This year, it is not at a dead end.

At least — and this is important — the committee also approved a bill for a so-called lockbox for the Special Transportation Fund so money going into the fund could be used for no other purpose. That is how it should be with the gasoline tax, but just about every year some gets siphoned off to balance the state budget. We absolutely cannot have any new revenue-generating measures without a constitutional assurance that the money would go only for that purpose.

Even so, tolls are not the answer.