By Gregory B. Hladky
2:50 PM EST, March 5, 2013
Leakage analysis. Congestion pricing. Hot lanes. Gantry cameras. Barrier free.
This bureaucratic-engineering jargon may sound a bit strange, but it's all about the tolls, baby. Well, it's also about politics and money and memories of blazing accidents and collapsing bridges.
In this era of deteriorating highways and diminishing federal and state transportation dollars, there doesn't seem to be any way of avoiding the topic of restoring tolls in Connecticut.
Bills to reinstitute tolls in one form or another in one area or another are fluttering all over this year's General Assembly session. State transportation officials have hired one of the nation's top toll industry experts/advocates to produce two different toll studies (at a cost of $2.2 million) for I-95 and in Hartford on I-84.
If you hate the idea of having toll roads again, take heart.
The 2014 elections are coming up. Toll talk makes dudes like a reelection-inclined Democratic governor named Dannel Malloy and Republican gubernatorial wannabes like state House Republican Leader Lawrence F. Cafero Jr. very cautious.
That's because the most recent Quinnipiac University Poll on the issue, back in March of 2010, found 56 percent of Connecticut voters surveyed opposed to tolls. Only 4 in 10 voters liked the concept.
"If I were governor, I'd prefer not to get embroiled in the toll argument," says Arthur Paulson, chairman of political science at Southern Connecticut State University.
And that's exactly how Malloy is playing it at the moment. Caution about a hot-button topic like tolls makes lots of sense at a moment when the state, after massive tax increases in the last couple of years, is once more stuck deep in another budget-deficit bog.
Malloy has repeatedly warned that "nothing can be taken off the table" when it comes to looking for new ways to pay for transportation improvements, says the governor's spokesman, Andrew Doba. "But to say he's considering [tolls] is probably too strong."
"We have no plans for that at this point," Doba insists.
Cafero is one of several potential candidates for the Republican gubernatorial nomination next year, and he's looking at the toll thing with very wary eyes.
"I'm open to it, but I say that cautiously," Cafero explains. He says toll technology has come a long way since the days of toll plazas and the hideous backups and pollution they caused.
But Cafero adds he's real worried about simply using toll revenues to plug more budget holes.
Connecticut has tried putting special types of revenue into special funds for particular purposes (like gas taxes for transportation or gambling revenue for education), "and we never keep our word," grumbles Cafero. He says those dollars always seem to get tapped for other problems when the state gets into budget trouble.
When the question of whether he could support tolls as a candidate for governor comes up, Cafero gets as skittish as Malloy. "I said I'd study it — I didn't say I'd support it."
Two fatal events in Connecticut history are wrapped up in the toll debate.
In January 1983, a tractor-trailer driven by Charlie Klutz smashed into the Stratford toll plaza. The fiery wreck killed seven people and eventually convinced lawmakers to get rid of all tolls in the state.
Just five months later, a piece of the Mianus River Bridge on I-95 in Greenwich collapsed. Three people died.
Investigations and studies pointed the finger of blame at years of inadequate maintenance and neglect, caused in part by the state's refusal to allocate enough money for highway and bridge repairs. The bridge tragedy forced the General Assembly to launch a multi-billion-dollar effort to rehabilitate Connecticut's dilapidated bridges and roads.
Today, state transportation officials are warning, this state needs to find a way to pay for another round of highway rehab before things reach the danger point again. And there's no money around to do it.
Gas tax revenues (theoretically used to pay for transportation upgrades) are expected to decline as more people drive more efficient cars and trucks or use mass transit. The state is deep in debt. And federal aid dollars look to be cut.
"We already have billions of dollars in unfunded projects," says state Department of Transportation spokesman Kevin Nursick.
Just one example is the "Hartford viaduct," which carries I-84 across part of the Capitol City. The damned thing is in poor shape and getting worse. Tom Maziarz, head of DOT's planning bureau, says the viaduct will need replacement in less than 20 years and could cost as much as $2 billion.
"The DOT is policy-neutral on tolling," says Nursick. "The legislature decides whether that's something the state wants to do."
Of course, the fact the agency has hired CDM Smith, one of the top advocates of highway tolling, to do the $2.2 million worth of toll studies doesn't indicate any DOT support for the concept.
"Yah, the toll industry is going to be pro-toll," acknowledges Maziarz, who adds that what Connecticut is looking for is expertise about what the tolling options might be and how those different possibilities might impact traffic and people's commutes. To do that, he says, you need a tolling expert from the industry.
(Ed Regan, the CDM Smith consultant in charge of the new Connecticut studies was co-author of "Rebuilding Our Interstates, The Case for Tolling," a report Regan used in lobbying Congress for the International Bridge, Tunnel and Turnpike Association on the toll issue.)
And Maziarz is quick to point out that the new tolling reality is very different from the old days of highway-clogging payment plazas, and a lot better even than the toll situation along the Mass. Pike for example.
Today you can have cameras on gantries over the highway to register E-Zpass markers or the plate numbers of cars that don't have E-Zpasses. No toll plazas would mean the highway would remain "barrier free."
("Leakage analysis," by the way, refers to studies of how many people without E-Zpasses or with expired passes don't pay their toll bills when a state sends them. Maziarz says that money leakage would be about the same as out-of-state drivers or deadbeats who don't pay parking tickets.)
You could have "congestion pricing," to charge higher tolls depending on whether someone was using that roadway during the height of rush hour, to encourage them to drive at different times or on different routes.
Around Hartford, whether there are "high-occupancy vehicle lanes" that don't get much use, there could be "Hot Lanes," where solo drivers would pay to be able to get past traffic jams along with cars carrying two or more people.
Maziarz (sounding a lot like a dude who's swallowed the tolling Kool-Aid) says one of the most popular forms of electronic highway tolling now being used in various states is "express lanes." That involves requiring tolls on only one lane of a highway, so the high-rollers or folks desperate to get someplace quick would pay to get past the jams.
Lawmakers along the borders are freaking out at the thought of "border tolls" at the Connecticut state line. The idea behind those is to make all those out-of-staters who use our highways pay for the privilege. But politicians from those towns worry border tolls would force vast numbers of cars off the highway and onto local streets to avoid paying anything.
Maziarz says the DOT is definitely not considering border tolls. That hasn't stopped some interior lawmakers from calling for them and lots of border lawmakers from worrying.
Then there's the fear that toll money would be used for other things besides fixing our falling-apart transportation system.
According to state officials, the federal funding system would force any toll money collected along a specific transportation corridor to be spent to maintain or improve that same corridor.
None of this, of course, convinces the diehard anti-tollers one little bit.
"I don't want people to feel like they're trapped in the congestion," says state Rep. Pamela Sawyer, R-Bolton. "I don't want anyone to feel they can't move from one community to another."
Of course, if the roads and bridges fall apart because no one can find the money to keep them in repair, no one will be going much of anywhere.
Paulson says there is a good political argument to be made for bringing back the tolls, and that they have worked well in some other states.
The problem for Malloy and other Connecticut politicians is that taxes have already been raised big-time in recent years, the economy here still sucks, and tolls would be labeled by critics as simply another form of tax increases.
If taxes do go up again, adds Paulson, Malloy (who insists he doesn't want more tax hikes) is likely to get the blame no matter what.
"There's no safe path to looking good," say Paulson.
Especially if that path involves paying tolls.
Copyright © 2014, WTXX-TV