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Hearing On Highway Tolls Brings Passion On Both Sides

Hearing On Highway Tolls Brings Passion On Both Sides

Hartford Courant, March 8, 2019

By Christopher Keating

Hundreds of proponents and opponents descended on the state Capitol for the year’s biggest hearing on electronic highway tolls.

Gov. Ned Lamont, along with a coalition of pro-toll advocates, joined together for a news conference before the hearing to generate momentum for tolls, which they say are necessary to fund needed infrastructure improvements.

“We’ve got to bring our infrastructure into the 21st century, and we’ve got to do it now,” said Lamont, who was joined by scores of toll supporters at the Legislative Office Building. “This is about jobs. ... This is so key to economic growth and opportunity in this state. ... It’s our opportunity in this generation to take the lead now.” 

Lamont’s budget calls for tolling all vehicles on I-95, I-91, I-84 and Route 15. There would be 53 overhead tolling gantries, but the precise locations of the gantries and the tolling rates have not been determined. State residents with an E-ZPass would receive a discount of at least 30 percent, according to Lamont’s budget. 

Tolls on all vehicles would raise an estimated $800 million a year. Supporters said the state would need to raise the gasoline tax by 53 cents a gallon in order to raise $800 million. 

One of the most visible opponents of tolls Wednesday was Hilary A. Gunn, a registered Republican who stood near the entrance of the hearing room with a handmade, black-and-white "No Tolls” sign and a yellow hat she knitted that said “No Tolls” in red capital letters. Gunn, 29, is a longtime neighbor of Lamont who lives within walking distance of his Greenwich mansion and attended school with one of his children.

“I believe tolls is another tax,” Gunn said.

Republicans in the state legislature agree and say none of their members are in favor of tolls. As an alternative, they have proposed a 30-year, $65 billion plan called Prioritize Progress that would rely on state bonding. Lamont and other supporters of tolls argue that plan means Connecticut residents would pay 100 percent of transportation upgrade costs, while under their plan about 40 percent of highway tolls would be paid by out-of-state drivers. 

H. Darrell Harvey, the co-chief executive officer of Ashforth Co., a commercial real estate firm in Stamford, said many members of the business community are in favor of tolls because rebuilding the state’s transportation infrastructure is “absolutely essential to getting the state growing again.”

House Speaker Joe Aresimowicz, a Berlin Democrat who supports tolls, said other states like Massachusetts have improved their economic standing through improvements in transportation.

“We have a decaying infrastructure in Connecticut,” he said. "While other states were improving their infrastructure, we sat idly by. ... We just sat here and did nothing.'' 

Lamont’s team of top officials, including transportation commissioner Joseph J. Giulietti and budget chief Melissa McCaw, answered detailed questions for three hours before the hearing was opened up to the general public and state officials. The all-day hearing lasted more than seven hours and spilled into the evening. 

One of those who showed up at the Capitol but did not testify was Bob Stefanowski, the Republican candidate for governor who was defeated last year by Lamont. Stefanowski opposed tolls throughout the campaign, while Lamont ran on a plan for tolls only on tractor-trailer trucks. He has since said that option would not raise the amount of money needed to fix Connecticut’s roads and bridges and has been accused of flip-flopping.

“If the Democrats had run on school regionalization and $1 billion in tolls, arguably the results [in the 2018 election] would have been different,” Stefanowski said.

Maintenance needed back to top

Senate President Pro Tem Martin Looney, a New Haven Democrat, said the state scaled back on needed maintenance in the years before the collapse of the Mianus River Bridge on I-95 in Greenwich in 1983.

"Anyone who is not committed to tolls in 2019 is not committed to improving our infrastructure,'' Looney said. “We have to have a new stream of revenue. ... Our gasoline tax is proving to be inadequate.”

But Joseph R. Sculley, president of the state’s trucking association, said concerns about revenue from the gasoline tax shrinking have been overblown as relatively few drivers have electric cars. The legislature’s nonpartisan fiscal office and the governor’s budget office say the gasoline tax is expected to be essentially flat at $500 million in the current fiscal year and the next three years.

Former state Sen. Len Suzio said legislators should wait to see how much funding Connecticut receives from the federal government for infrastructure improvements before making any moves on tolls.

“It’s stupid to make a decision now,” Suzio said. "You can’t commit to tolls until you know the answers.''

Large crowds gathered at the state Capitol hours before the public hearing begin. By 7:30 a.m., at least a dozen people had arrived at the transportation committee room to sign up, Sculley said. Speakers were being chosen through a random lottery, and Sculley said he received No. 283, though the numbers do not run in precise chronological order.

While hundreds arrived to spectate in the hearing room or protest in the atrium of the Legislative Office Building, only about 50 people signed up to testify. Of those, the pro-toll group outnumbered the anti-toll crowd by about 30 to 20.

Stamford resident Patrick Sasser, a career firefighter who is the founder and organizer of NoTollsCT, said he was "shocked and amazed'' at the testimony Wednesday, adding that much of gubernatorial campaign centered around tolls.

Rep. Roland Lemar told Sasser that the pro-toll advocates are not trying to hurt businesses and are not simply grabbing for money.

Sen. Alexandra Bergstein, a Greenwich Democrat, said to Sasser: "You always are very angry. You have misrepresented what I have said. Can we be calm and considerate of each other?''

The dust-up between Bergstein and Sasser was cut off by Sen. Carlo Leone, the committee co-chair who said the conversation needed to take place outside the hearing room.

For years, tolls have been debated and repeatedly rejected as politicians have sided with the anti-toll advocates who say tolls are simply another tax on Connecticut residents.

“We all know the conversation about tolls is tough, but it’s the right thing to do," said Hartford Mayor Luke Bronin, who served as emcee at the morning’s pro-toll news conference. ”This is about economic growth. It’s about smart investment. ... I am proud to stand here with this broad coalition to say: ‘We need to do now what we should have done decades ago.’ ’’