BRISTOL – Republican legislators talked tolls with a packed crowd at Bristol Central High School Monday.
Tolls have been a hotly debated topic for several months and the high turnout was reflective of that controversy. In the crowd were local leaders including Plymouth Mayor David Merchant and residents of Bristol and surrounding communities.
The recent budget proposal from Gov. Ned Lamont includes more than 50 toll gantries on all major highways.
Area lawmakers who attended included Reps. Whit Betts, Cara Pavalock-D’Amato and William Petit Jr., and Sens. Gennaro Bizzarro and Henri Martin.
Also included in the discussion were Rep. John Piscopo, who represents Burlington, Harwinton, Litchfield and Thomaston; and Rep. Laura Devlin, who represents Fairfield and Trumbull.
Betts began by welcoming the guests. He encouraged them to reach out to Rep. Chris Ziogas and other members of the Transportation Committee to hear “the other side” from toll advocates.
Devlin then presented an overview of the toll proposal and information from a November 2018 toll study.
“This is a big issue and so we decided to hit the road and come to any community that is looking for us to come,” she said.
Devlin asked audience members to raise their hands, first if they support tolls and then if they oppose them. The vast majority indicated that they oppose tolls. A handful said they were undecided.
“I am not in favor, and 90 percent of my constituents are not in favor,” said Devlin.
Devlin said arguments she has heard against tolls include that they represent a “tax to get to work,” while arguments in favor are that people pay tolls in every other state and that tolls will capture revenue from out-of-state drivers.
Devlin said tolls are intended to discourage people from driving on highways during peak times of 6 to 9 a.m. and 4 to 7 p.m. and to push them onto side roads or public transportation or into car pools.
The November study estimated that tolls would raise $1.086 billion a year – 60 percent from state residents and 40 percent will come from nonresidents. Tolling would be done every six miles.
The Department of Transportation will also be given control of where the gantries are and what they should cost.
“This is a hugely partisan issue at the Capitol, but not for the people living across the state,” said Devlin. “This will affect everyone.”
Martin said there is $45 billion to fund transportation over 30 years out of the $62 billion that the DOT estimates it needs.
Martin laid out the Republicans’ “prioritize progress” plan that has no tolls and would raise $65 billion over 30 years. It utilizes general obligation bonds, respects the $2 billion state bonding cap, and “takes care of the state’s core investments and priorities.”
“There are a lot of pet programs, pork and political handouts — we said no to all of that,” said Martin. “This plan also provides steady funding to transportation.”
Ziogas, a Democrat who represents Bristol and was at the forum as a spectator, said he opposes the Republicans’ plan.
“I think Henri Martin did a fine job of demonstrating how this will slash huge portions of the budget,” he said. “Their proposal will cost funding to education, municipal services and programs that provide supports. Their plan will not provide new revenues like tolls will.”
Audience members were allowed to share their thoughts and question panelists. That occurred after press deadline.
Brian M. Johnson can be reached at 860-973-1806 or firstname.lastname@example.org.