Governor Charlie Baker wants to crack down on Connecticut drivers who don’t pay their Mass. Pike tolls. The Connecticut General Assembly looks like it might be ready to return the favor.
That’s right, it’s time for the annual Toll Debate in Hartford. And this time around, the pro-toll forces may have the votes. Our free ride on Connecticut highways could soon be over.
Connecticut lawmakers are staring at yet another budget deficit. The potential revenue could be too good to pass up: A recent state-funded report shows tolls could bring in $950 million a year, after expenses, with gantries dotted across 10 interstates and other highways.
Tolls disappeared from Connecticut in the mid-1980s after a fiery crash at an I-95 toll plaza killed seven people. But the emergence of open-road tolling in recent years — no more cars idling in line at a booth — has whetted legislators’ appetites.
The issue typically breaks down along partisan lines in the state Capitol: Democrats like tolls, Republicans don’t. The Democrats control both chambers, and they increased their ranks after the fall elections. New Senator Alex Bergstein, a Greenwich Democrat, made waves this month by filing a bill to establish electronic tolls on major highways, to boost state transportation funding. It is written simply, to kick off the debate. (She beat an incumbent Republican, with reviving tolls as part of her campaign platform.) She notes that at least 40 percent of toll-paying drivers would be from out of state — freeloaders no more.
This revival would most likely happen through a federal program that allows new tolls if they vary based on the time of day. Congestion pricing, as policy wonks call it, is aimed at managing traffic by encouraging some drivers to hit the road at off-peak times.
New governor Ned Lamont says he supports truck-only tolls, similar to a system in Rhode Island. But that program’s fate remains uncertain: The trucking industry is challenging it in federal court, arguing it’s unconstitutional.
Toll proponents such as Bergstein often prefer a broader approach. They point to the benefits: easing congestion while paying for badly needed road and transit projects.
Opponents, meanwhile, are gearing up. Patrick Sasser, co-owner of a small trucking business in Stamford and spokesman for the No Tolls CT group, says consumers and businesses are hurting enough from a litany of taxes. This would be just one more hit to the wallet, or the balance sheet. He says toll critics successfully scared legislative leaders from taking the issue up for a full vote in the House or Senate last year. He may not get so lucky this spring, though.
Joe Brennan, CEO of the Connecticut Business & Industry Association, fully expects roll-call votes by the time the session ends in June, given the Democrats’ strengthened clout in both chambers. Brennan says many executives have asked him why Connecticut doesn’t have tolls already. But his association hasn’t taken a position yet on the issue: It’s a tough balance, finding a way to fix aging infrastructure while not making the state more unaffordable.
A different toll debate is taking shape on Beacon Hill. The Massachusetts Legislature faces two related questions: Can congestion pricing work on the Pike or in the harbor tunnels, and is it fair for Pike drivers to carry so much of the freight? One bill would implement time-of-day pricing statewide, for example, and another calls for studying the expansion of tolling.
Massachusetts leaders will likely keep an eye on how the toll talk plays out in Hartford. Driving through Connecticut isn’t going to get any cheaper. But it might eventually get faster.
Jon Chesto can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.