(Neena Satija - CT Mirror) It's been almost exactly 30 years since a tractor-trailer plowed into cars waiting at a Stratford toll barrier, triggering an explosion that killed seven 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. Rep. Pat Dillon, D-New Haven, will be introducing a bill this legislative session that would re-establish tolls in the state.
"Our infrastructure is crumbling," said Dillon, who has been a legislator since the 1980s when tolls were first banned. "And we don't have the money to pay for it. We're not going to have the funds we need for transportation."
Her proposal comes as Gov.Dannel P. Malloy and the state Department of Transportation have been moving to seriously study the issue of tolls, pointing out that Connecticut's revenue from its gasoline tax is set to decline steeply as cars become more fuel-efficient. The state will begin two studies early this year to consider putting tolls on two major highways - I-84 west in the Hartford area, and I-95 between New Haven and New York.
Highway tolls are gaining more acceptance in other states -- most recently, Los Angeles County, which implemented the first tolls in its history last November.
"It's not just Connecticut where this is becoming an issue," said Tom Maziarz, director of the DOT's Bureau of Policy and Planning. "This is an issue nationwide in terms of the amount of funding available for transportation."
Drivers paid tolls all over the state before the 1980s. There were several toll stations on I-95 and Route 52, on the Merritt and Wilbur Cross Parkways, and on Hartford-area bridges including the Charter Oak. The Connecticut Turnpike alone generated $56 million in revenue in its last year of collections.
Maziarz said he doesn't have an estimate of how much money tolls could bring in today. The DOT studies (which will cost about $2.2 million, mostly paid for by federal funds) will focus more on how the state might reinstate tolls, and for what purpose.
"Congestion pricing," which refers to using tolls meant to reduce traffic at peak hours, has become a popular term in many transportation circles. On I-95, congestion relief is critical, with 16 million hours of delay in the area between Bridgeport and Stamford experienced due to traffic in 2007, the last year for which figures were available. (In 1983, the number was under 5 million). The DOT estimates that delays on I-95 and I-91 cost a total of $670 million in lost productivity that year.
But reducing traffic through tolls on the highway won't be easy. I-95's "peak" period lasts from 6:15 a.m. to well after 10 a.m., and many drivers may not be able or willing to shift their time of travel in order to save money. Other possible routes, like the main roads in towns hugging the highway or the Merritt Parkway, are just as congested.
Another option would be adding new lanes that are toll-only -- a costly proposition in terms of construction and land acquisition. Or, all or some of the lanes on the current highway could be pay lanes -- but that may run afoul of federal requirements that generally do not allow tolls on interstate highways, and therefore deprive the state of needed federal funds.
"The goal is congestion relief," Maziarz said. "What we don't know yet is whether or not electronic tolling can do it, or what combination of electronic tolling and highway improvements and transit improvements are necessary to do it."
When it comes to putting tolls on I-84, the state's focus will be somewhat different. While revenues collected on I-95 could go toward a variety of improvements -- like fixing old roadways and bridges on the interstate, or even beefing up the railway system -- tolls on I-84 are seen as a possible option for financing the reconstruction of the Aetna Viaduct in Hartford.
The elevated roadway through downtown Hartford was built in 1965 and is in desperate need of repair.
"It's reached a point that in order to keep it functioning in a safe manner, it's very expensive and very disruptive," Maziarz said. "We just spent on the order of $25-35 million just within the last year or so with a relatively small repair project out there, where we focused on the bridge joints."
Replacing the whole viaduct, he said, will cost at least $1 billion to $2 billion.
With so many other issues facing the legislature this session, it's not clear whether Dillon's bill to put tolls back on the table will get much attention. Fairfield County legislators are also still very wary of a law that could, many say, disproportionately affect residents in that area.
"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," said Rep. Larry Cafero, a Republican from Norwalk. "So it's a mixed bag."
At the same time, Cafero said, things have changed since the 1980s. Back then, following the Stratford crash, thousands of people marched in protest of tolls because of the potential for accidents at toll booths. There were also concerns about the pollution caused by so many cars braking constantly to pay the toll.
Much of that is no longer a concern, as tolls are often paid electronically now. The DOT's studies will only consider reinstating tolls using an electronic method of payment, such as the EZ-Pass system in use throughout the Northeast.
"I think technology has come a long enough way that it's certainly prudent to look into it," Cafero said.
However, he noted, "for every person that has an EZ-Pass, there's many who don't. And I look to the right of me, and I see lines going back with idling cars for quite some distance of people doing it the old-fashioned way."
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