Angry crowd says 'no' to state tolls

Angry residents filled Milford City Hall Saturday morning, holding signs and yelling to state legislators that they do not want tolls introduced in Connecticut and do not want to spend $10 million on a study to see what impact tolls would have on the state.

Four state legislators assembled at Milford City Hall Saturday to talk about a study that could lead to the creation of an electronic tolling system in the state, and to answer questions from residents: State Representatives Kim Rose (D-Milford), Dorinda Borer (D-West Haven), Philip Young (D-Stratford) and Joe Gresko (D-Stratford).

But anger and frustration created a less than organized meeting.

House Bill 5391 would allow the Commissioner of Transportation to study the development of electronic tolling systems on Interstate 95, Interstate 91, Interstate 84, the Wilbur Cross Parkway and the Merritt Parkway, and decide the locations and amount of tolls.

Legislators expect to vote on the bill next week, according to Rose.

Young explained to the vocal crowd that next week’s vote concerns the study, not the actual implementation of tolls. He said the study will look at the number of gantries, and that next year the state would look at the Department of Transportation proposal based on the study.

The state is looking at an all-electronic system, similar to one installed on the Mass Pike.
“These electronic systems use EZPass readers and cameras mounted on a gantry that spans over the highway,” according to a fact sheet the legislators distributed. “This eliminates traffic delays and accidents common to old toll booth collection systems.”

Borer said legislators have a lot of the same questions residents have, and she touted the funds that other states generate from tolls. New Jersey, she said, brings in $2.1 billion, and Massachusetts $500 million, adding that between 20% and 50% of the toll revenue comes from out-of-state residents.

“So when we go to the airport, every time we go to Newport, every time we go to bring our child to college, we’re helping to pay to fix their roads,” Borer said. “Connecticut is the only state that doesn’t have the toll revenue. And right now ... we don’t have a lot of money in our transportation fund.”

She credited Rose for setting up the meeting so they could hear from residents, saying that out of all the state municipalities, only Milford has hosted this kind of forum.

State estimates peg toll revenues at $900 million, Borer said, with 30% of that coming from out-of-state drivers and 70% from state residents. A study, she said, would help determine how to set up an equitable system.

The three-step toll implementation process includes the study, review of a plan by the General Assembly, and then, if the General Assembly approves it, submission of the plan to the Federal Highway Administration for approval. According to Borer, the process could take four to five years.

“We’ve been talking about tolls for years,” Borer said. “Let’s find out what would happen if we implement tolls.

“That’s what we’re voting on,” she added.

Gresko said tolls could lessen the burden of infrastructure improvements on Connecticut residents.

“You are I are paying for all the road improvements,” he said. “Don’t you want to explore options of getting out-of-state people to help?”

Several people tried to wrestle control of the meeting away from the legislators. Former state Senator Tom Scott grabbed the podium and pointed out that he led the fight to remove tolls from Connecticut’s highways years ago. Calling the tolls a “mileage tax,” Scott said, “The bottom line is they are about to screw every commuter in the state of Connecticut.

“These people are selling snake oil,” Scott added.

Residents had a number of questions, including the source of the $10 million needed to conduct a study. Gresko said the money would come from the state transportation fund. He and the other legislators mentioned the Mianus River Bridge collapse of 1983 and said the state needs to do something to ensure funds to maintain its highways and bridges

“We can’t shut our railway down, we can't’ shut our buses down. And our roads are collapsing. Bridges are in dire need,” Rose said.

Rose told the crowd that federal law says the state cannot put up border tolls, and the money collected has to be spent on the roadway where the tolls are collected, meaning tolling mechanisms would have to be placed on multiple roadways.

Responding to a resident’s question, Borer said tolls will help the state economy because people don’t come to Connecticut because of the infrastructure.

Residents like Walter Hagedorn held signs that said tolls will hurt Connecticut residents. Hagedorn said state tolls would cost his power washing business $15,000 to $20,000 a year. “It’s going to kill us,” he said.

Resident and former Milford alderman Bill Bevan said he thinks the tolls are just another way of taxing state residents for roads.

Candidates hoping to challenge incumbents also spoke at the hearing, including Connie Jagodzinsk, a Republican planning to challenge Rose in the 118th District.

“No matter how many times you people increase existing taxes or create new taxes, there’s never enough money. Now you want tolls, knowing up to 75% of the money will come from Connecticut residents. It’s just another tax,” Jagodzinski said.