Like many other states, Connecticut's inability to fund needed highway and infrastructure improvements will keep the debate over charging tolls on state highways up and running, said Ed Regan, a consultant and engineer at CDM Smith, which is conducting a toll study for the state Department of Transportation.
With automobile manufacturers mandated to continue improving fuel efficiency, reliance on support from the federal Highway Trust Fund, which draws revenue from gasoline taxes, has become more uncertain, Regan said; as a result, the Federal Highway Administration has been lessening restrictions on how states places highway tolls.
"Most states in the country don't use tolls, but the interesting change is that the majority of state Department of Transportations are petitioning Congress to eliminate the restrictions on tolling," Regan said. "Relying on the gas tax is increasingly unsustainable."
On Friday, Regan and other analysts from CDM Smith, which has been hired by the state to conduct two studies, including one on so-called value pricing tolling, will give the General Assembly's Transportation Committee a general presentation on electronic tolling and its possible use to produce funding for transportation projects.
The informational hearing will be held at 10 a.m., in room 2C of the Legislative Office Building at 300 Capitol Ave, Hartford.
The committee is considering four proposed bills that seek to authorize re-establishment of tolls on state highways, which were eliminated in 1987.
"There has been a lot of relaxation of Federal Highway Administration rules on tolling, but Connecticut is still a ways off from instituting tolls," Regan said. "Our presentation is going to be purely informational and discuss how things are changing from the past."
State Sen. Scott Frantz, R-Greenwich, a committee member, said continuing opposition to the concept of border tolls from legislators in southern Connecticut and other areas at the state's edges will likely defeat legislation proposing electronic tolls on state border roads.
Such proposals disproportionately burden drivers living at the state's edges and would cause spill over onto local roads by motorists seeking to evade the charge, Frantz said. Gov. Dannel P. Malloy also said last month he opposes tolls at state borders, but that Connecticut needs to make up for lost fuel tax revenue.
"I think the tolling proposals stand a better chance than they have had in previous years, but that's not to say there is a greater than 50 percent chance they could be approved because they still remain very controversial," Frantz said.
Members of the assembly's Finance and Appropriations committees are also unlikely to approve proposed bills seeking to authorize tolling and reduce the state's gasoline tax, because of a reluctance to reduce revenues during a session in which legislators have had to close a $400 million deficit.
"If we start reducing revenues at this time, we may end up in much deeper yogurt," Frantz said.
The DOT has identified about $16 billion in unfunded road and bridge repairs and improvements that will be needed over the next 20 years, including $7.5 billion during the next decade.
The state's Special Transportation Fund, which is used to fund road and transit projects, is expected to run a $52 million deficit in 2015 and a $98 million deficit in 2016 as revenue fails to keep pace with spending, according to the state's Office of Policy & Management.
State Sen. Andrew Maynard, D-Griswold, co-chairman of the Transportation Committee, said tolls remain unpalatable to many, and the continued discussion is warranted given the funding crunch and the need to continue to educate the public and legislators about modern technology and eliminate misconceptions about the tolls causing safety hazards.
"I've increasingly come to see it as something we need to consider very seriously," Maynard said. "We're getting into a situation where we've got 50 or 60 year old infrastructure that we need funding for and we need to continue to educate people about the magnitude of the need."
The two CDM Smith studies just getting underway are funded through the Federal Highway Administration's Value Pricing Pilot Program, including a $1.4 million study of congestion pricing tolls on Interstate 95 to generate revenue for transportation projects. Congestion pricing means charging drivers more to travel at rush hour than at less busy times.
The second study, costing $800,000, would consider the feasibility of using tolls and other methods to curb congestion on highways around Hartford.
Regan said declining revenue to the federal Highway Trust Fund will continue to accelerate, placing greater pressure on states to raise fuel taxes or find other funding sources to complete projects.
Under fuel-efficiency standards put in place by President Obama, new model cars and light duty trucks will need to get 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025, nearly doubling the exiting standard of 29.7 mpg.
"If your basis for getting revenue is taxing fuel consumed it means that people will be able to drive 2.5 times as far on one tank of gas," Regan said. "Between inflation and fuel efficiency you'll only be generating half the tax."
Under relaxed federal guidelines adopted six months ago by the FHA, Connecticut could consider creating so-called express toll lanes, levying tolls on added capacity on existing highways under the condition they don't reduce the number of cost-free travel lanes, Regan said.
Tolling new capacity on highways faces less public resistance than instituting fees on previously free road space, but the cost of building the new lanes can also be a potential hurdle, he said.
"A network of express toll lanes lets the users choose if they want to pay the toll to have a quicker trip," Regan said. "There is also a better public acceptance of tolling new capacity and it seems to be popular in urban areas that have done."