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Tolls Debate Heats Up in Fairfield County

FAIRFIELD COUNTY, Conn. – A fiery 1983 tractor-trailer crash that killed seven people at the I-95 toll booth plaza in Stratford was also the death knell for toll booths in Connecticut.

The debate over whether to remove the toll booths had begun years earlier, but that tragic accident finally led to removal by 1988 of all eight toll plazas on the Connecticut Turnpike, several along the Merritt Parkway and others throughout the state.

Now, more than 25 years later, a new debate has emerged about whether to bring the tolls back.

But the new plan would not include toll barriers. Instead, a digital-camera license-plate reader system used in numerous states across the country would be installed.

According to the 2009 Connecticut Tolling Study, if the state ever reinstitutes tolls, it should not include traditional full-stop booths, but instead the digital-camera license-plate reading system.

Leading that effort is State Rep. Tony Guerrera, D- Rocky Hill, co-chairman of the General Assembly's Transportation Committee. Guerrera sponsored a bill, approved by the House and his committee in June, that could have paved the way for an electronic toll system across Connecticut.

While the bill never made it to the Senate floor, Guerrera said the idea is far from dead. He intends to schedule public hearings and present information by experts in the coming months to gain support for the bill.

"I have always been strongly in favor of an electronic tolling system without booths, and I'm not about to give up just because it didn't make it through the Senate this year," said Guerrera.

Along with other supporters, he says tolls for drivers passing through Connecticut from others states could raise enough revenue to eliminate the state gas tax–one of the highest in the country–and reduce increasing traffic congestion on I-95, particularly in Fairfield County.

After toll booths were taken down in 1988, traffic on I-95 increased 20 percent, according to several studies, including one conducted by the state Department of Transportation.

Kevin Nursick, a DOT spokesman, said the department, however, takes "no position on whether to reinstate tolls or not. We're neutral on this one."

But locating tolls at the state's border crossings could raise $600 million a year in revenue, or $18 billion over 30 years, according to the state Office of Policy and Management.

Also, with traffic on I-95 in Fairfield County estimated at more than 150,000 vehicles per day–by far the worst of any section along the 128-mile turnpike that stretches from the New York to Rhode Island border–toll supporters say something needs to be done.

"The beauty of it is, we could get people from outside the state who pass through and don't even stop for gas to pay for much of the toll revenue," Guerrera said. "Why wouldn't we want to collect money from people literally getting a free ride using our roadways to get somewhere else?"

Opponents include Greenwich First Selectman Peter Tesei and Town Planner Diane Fox, who both submitted testimony to the Transportation Committee in February.

“Tolls will generate increased traffic through local neighborhoods by motorists looking to avert payment,” Tesei states. Fox said in testimony, “This will also add traffic to the presently burdened U.S. Route 1 in Greenwich.”

State Rep. Gail Lavielle, R-Wilton, a member of the legislature's Transportation Committee whose district includes parts of Norwalk, said there are several reasons she voted against Guerrera's bill and opposes reinstating tolls.

"I believe the bill would set a dangerous precedent,” she said. “Tolls would further burden Fairfield County commuters with what amounts to another tax at a time when people are fed up with higher taxes. They would also hurt Connecticut businesses by discouraging motorists from out of state from taking short trips to shop and eat in our restaurants."

Guerrera disagrees. "I have a hard time understanding that argument, because no matter what we do, when we go to New York we have to pay a toll, and we don't stop going to New York.

He said for daily Connecticut commuters within a 10- or 15-mile radius from New York "we could make the toll cheaper, and also install a system that raises or lowers the toll amount based on traffic flow."

Greg Amy, Connecticut chapter activist for the National Motor Association, said he believes tolls would reduce "overwhelming traffic congestion" on I-95.

"An electronic toll system would work because some people who drive would start taking the trains," said Amy. "And drivers wouldn't be burdened by having to stop at a toll booth."

Do you favor implementing an electronic toll system at the Connecticut borders? Leave a comment below.

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