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30 years later, is Connecticut ready to reinstate tolls?

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A New Haven legislator plans to introduce a bill that would reinstate tolls in Connecticut. While that could help pay for badly-needed transportation fixes, it’s a complicated proposition.

It’s been almost exactly 30 years since a tractor-trailer plowed into cars waiting at a Stratford toll barrier, killing 7 people. The January 1983 crash prompted Connecticut legislators to begin phasing out tolls in the state – and they’ve been banned ever since. But if some lawmakers have their way, that could change soon.

“Our infrastructure is crumbling, and we don’t have the money to pay for it," says Pat Dillon, who has represented New Haven in the General Assembly since 1985. She was around when thousands of people protested the tolls that brought tens of millions of revenue to the state every year. But now, she says things are different. People can pay electronically, and with the newest technology, they won’t even have to slow down at all. And, we won’t be getting the money we need from gas taxes in the future.

“The miles per gallon, the mileage that you get from a car, is so dramatically different than it was 20 years ago when we got rid of the tolls," she says. "The revenue is never going to be there.”

Dillon’s proposal comes at a time when tolling is gaining more acceptance nationwide. Los Angeles County just implemented its first tolls ever in the county’s history last November. Connecticut will begin two studies early this year to consider tolls on two major highways – I-84 west in the Hartford area, and I-95 between New Haven and New York.

“It’s not just Connecticut where this is becoming an issue," says Tom Maziarz, the Department of Transportation’s director of Policy and Planning. This is an issue nationwide in terms of the amount of funding available for transportation.”

The state is spending more than $2 million, mostly using federal grants, to study tolling on I-95 and I-84. On 95, the issue will be tricky. The transportation department is hoping to try some form of what’s called “congestion pricing,” or charging the highest tolls during peak traffic times, so that drivers might start avoiding rush hour. But “rush hour” begins at 6:15 a.m. and ends well after 10 a.m. on 95, so that might not be so easy.

Other options, says Maziarz, aren't great either: “They can also shift their route, which means they might shift, say to the Merritt Parkway. The Parkway itself is fairly congested, so that’s difficult.”

Drivers could decide to take the train instead. In that case the tolls could be used to put some more money into Metro-North. Over on I-84, the goal of tolling is to pay for replacing that nearly 50-year-old bridge into downtown Hartford, the Aetna Viaduct. Both of the state’s studies are assuming that tolls will pay for transportation infrastructure and not wind up in the state’s general fund.

“The dollars that we have have not gone as far in terms of being able to maintain the systems like the bridges," Maziarz says.

Then of course, there’s the question of how you toll. The state could add new lanes on the highway that are toll-only, so people who want to drive in the fast lane would have to pay. But that’s a costly proposition in terms of construction and land acquisition. Or, all or some of the lanes on the current highway could be tolled. But before any of this happens, legislators need to come on board.

“I’ve met so many people, certainly from the Greenwich area, that are opposed to it, that remember what it was like when they had them back in the early ‘80s and beyond," says Larry Cafero, the Republican state house leader representing Norwalk and New Canaan. He says tolls might divert drivers onto local roads in places like Greenwich, which are already congested. And so he’s not convinced they’re the right way to move forward. But he’ll consider them. And not many Fairfield County legislators were saying that just a few years ago.

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