Transportation hearing on tolls leaves unanswered questions

The Transportation Committee heard testimony regarding the implementation of tolls on Connecticut’s highways, a highly contentious and complex proposal being championed by Gov. Dannel Malloy and Department of Transportation Commissioner James Redeker.

Redeker was in the hot-seat for nearly half of the 8 hour hearing and said Connecticut’s transportation funding is in “crisis” due to rising debt service costs.

Redeker testified that Connecticut’s transportation expenditures have grown from $150 million per year 20 years ago to $900 million and costs will continue to rise for the foreseeable future.

The DOT Commissioner said tolls are necessary to keep Connecticut’s roads and bridges from falling into a state of disrepair, but the details of how Connecticut would establish tolls, what it would mean for Connecticut’s residents, and if it would affect the state’s federal funding remain largely unknown.

The number and location of electronic tolling gantries and whether or not Connecticut residents would receive some form of discount remain questions that only the legislature can answer. Federal funding changes would depend largely on the manner in which Connecticut institutes the tolls and will require further study in tandem with federal officials.

The cost of installing the gantries would require “design studies,” according to Redeker, although past estimates have placed the cost in the area of the $300 million.

Previous tolling suggestions made by the DOT included 72 tolling gantries on all of Connecticut’s interstates and other highways like Route 8 or the Merritt Parkway.

A 2015 study by CDM Smith recommended 78 tolling gantries across the state and was the basis for the DOT’s recommendations to the legislature in 2017. The study estimated the tolling could bring in up to $1 billion annually depending on the toll rate, but also estimated 72 percent of the revenue would come from in-state drivers.

“Ultimately the legislature will have the choice to decide how much and where to toll as a function, I think, of what are the needs in the STF to sustain it so we don’t have a transportation crisis,” Redeker said.

Redeker reiterated that Connecticut cannot install border tolls. “The only way that Connecticut could toll our roadways is under the federal authorization for value pricing or congestion pricing.” Congestion pricing means toll rates would be higher during peak commuting hours.

Congestion tolls would be allowed under federal guidelines without Connecticut losing its federal highway funding. The variable pricing, according to Redeker, has to be enough to encourage people to travel at off-peak times, although the commissioner could not say what that pricing would be.

“The level of that pricing is still to be studied, in terms of what the impacts are and how to set those prices,” Redeker said under questioning by committee vice-chair Sen. Len Suzio, R-Meriden.

Suzio questioned whether or not the legislature should even vote on tolls when the answers to many of these questions remain unknown. Redeker said he wouldn’t comment on what the legislature should do, but that something had to be done.

“I can’t give you final answers at this point, no matter what,” Redeker said, noting that environment and engineering studies still have to be done.

“I don’t think its reasonable for the legislature to vote on a very big issue like this until we have definitive answers and we are even close to any definitive answers,” Suzio said.

Although Redeker left a number of the questions in the hands of the legislature, two of the bills heard before the Transportation Committee would essentially take tolling out of the hands of Connecticut’s elected representatives.

Raised Bills 389 and 5981 would create the Connecticut Transportation Authority, a quasi-public agency which would control tolling and repair work on Connecticut’s interstates. The CTA would be run by a board of 15 unelected officials, and would collect toll revenue for those highways and have the ability to issue bonds.

A separate bill would implement Gov. Malloy’s proposals to install tolls, raise the gas tax and implement a tax on tires as a way to support the Special Transportation Fund.

Redeker answered lawmaker questions for nearly 4 hours, but following his testimony the committee heard from a number of other voices.

Patrick Sasser, co-owner of a trucking company based in Stamford, said his business pays “more and more every year” in taxes, fees, insurance and employee costs. “These tolls and these gas taxes will continue to hurt small businesses,” Sasser said. “When do we get a break in this state?”

Sasser argued that the increased costs to trucking will trickle down to consumers. Sasser helped organize an anti-toll protest Stamford in February.

Yankee Institute President Carol Platt Liebau pointed out that Connecticut spends more on transportation than most other states and has the highest administrative costs in the country, a point which DOT has attempted to dispute in the past.

“How do those who support tolls justify asking for even one cent more of our money when state government has been such a poor steward of what we have already given it?” Liebau asked the committee members.

Liebau said the idea of a quasi-public agency with no elected officials controlling tolls in Connecticut was tantamount to taxation without representation.

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