February 5, 2018

Toll locations will be key to debate

Greg Bordonaro Editor

Location, location, location is often a mantra used by real estate agents, but as the clarion calls for Connecticut highway tolls get louder, the motto will be just as pertinent to the state's transportation funding debate.

Key Democratic state lawmakers and Gov. Dannel P. Malloy last week made it clear they plan to propose and force a vote on a bill that would adopt statewide tolling, which some business leaders and others are beginning to warm up to given the state's transportation funding shortage.

In fact, 47 percent of Connecticut drivers said they support interstate highway tolls, according to a recent AAA survey of nearly 1,000 motorists.

While that may be true in a general sense, once the conversation shifts to toll locations, the political tea leaves may shift.

That's because many supporters favor the idea of border tolls that would primarily tax New York and Massachusetts residents who work in or visit Connecticut. But border tolls may not be legally feasible, according to a 2015 report by consultancy CDM Smith, which said the Federal Highway Administration likely wouldn't approve them since they may violate the federal Interstate Commerce Clause.

If that's true, tolls would have to be spread across the state to raise enough money to make an impact. Indeed, most pro-toll legislators are favoring a "statewide" toll approach and numerous studies commissioned in recent years have recommended the same thing.

The Transportation Finance Panel, for example, in 2016 recommended tolling in three main corridors: I-84 from New York to Hartford; I-95/Route 15 from New York to New Haven; and I-95 from New Haven to Rhode Island.

That plan, along with several other options, would net the state $18.3 billion over 20 years, but it's estimated only 30 percent of that revenue would come from out-of-state drivers.

Here's a potential risk: At a time when the state is trying to revive its cities, adding tolls at their respective borders would seem to be a counterproductive exercise, giving residents and employers an added excuse to avoid urban cores.

It's already costly to visit or operate a company in Hartford. Think of parking, for example, where some visitors are forced to ante up $10 (or sometimes more) to attend an event downtown. Now add a few extra dollars in toll payments (that is a random estimate, but even if it's a bit high to start, toll costs will only rise once lawmakers agree to install them), and visitors are already paying the cost of an entree before they step foot into one of the city's restaurants.

For employers and workers in Hartford, the added costs would be a nuisance. On average, there are 260 workdays in a year. If tolls cost a worker even a mere $1 to $2 daily, you are talking about a $260 to $520 annual tax to work in Hartford. At a time when downtown Hartford's office vacancy rate still hovers near 20 percent, making it more expensive to come downtown is counterintuitive.

And there is some evidence that tolls have negatively impacted communities where they are located. A 2015 economist's report, for example, found that the implementation of tolls and tunnel closures in Portsmouth, Va., had a "substantially negative" impact, leading to fewer vehicles moving through that city and a corresponding decline in sales tax collections.

If Connecticut does reinstate tolls, some may argue that Hartford area drivers should shoulder some of the burden. It's actually a legitimate gripe, given the fact that one of the state's most expensive projects in the pipeline is the replacement of the I-84 Hartford viaduct, which carries a price tag as high as $12 billion.

Others may say the addition of tolls in or near the Capital City would ease congestion and encourage wider use of public transportation, which could be a positive benefit.

But lawmakers' ability to adopt tolls will likely depend, in part, on ways they can mitigate some of the costs to in-state commuters.

A rebate program could negate some of the negative effects.

If border tolls were a possibility, tolls would be an easier sell. Given that's less likely, and it's an election year, the toll debate faces a bumpy road ahead.

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