Tolls

The DOT has hired CDM Smith, one of the top advocates of highway tolling, to do $2.2 million worth of toll studies. (iStock photo / March 5, 2013)

Leakage analysis. Congestion pricing. Hot lanes. Gantry cameras. Barrier free.

This bureaucratic-engineering jargon may sound a bit strange, but it's all about the tolls, baby. Well, it's also about politics and money and memories of blazing accidents and collapsing bridges.

In this era of deteriorating highways and diminishing federal and state transportation dollars, there doesn't seem to be any way of avoiding the topic of restoring tolls in Connecticut.

Bills to reinstitute tolls in one form or another in one area or another are fluttering all over this year's General Assembly session. State transportation officials have hired one of the nation's top toll industry experts/advocates to produce two different toll studies (at a cost of $2.2 million) for I-95 and in Hartford on I-84.

If you hate the idea of having toll roads again, take heart.

The 2014 elections are coming up. Toll talk makes dudes like a reelection-inclined Democratic governor named Dannel Malloy and Republican gubernatorial wannabes like state House Republican Leader Lawrence F. Cafero Jr. very cautious.

That's because the most recent Quinnipiac University Poll on the issue, back in March of 2010, found 56 percent of Connecticut voters surveyed opposed to tolls. Only 4 in 10 voters liked the concept.

"If I were governor, I'd prefer not to get embroiled in the toll argument," says Arthur Paulson, chairman of political science at Southern Connecticut State University.

And that's exactly how Malloy is playing it at the moment. Caution about a hot-button topic like tolls makes lots of sense at a moment when the state, after massive tax increases in the last couple of years, is once more stuck deep in another budget-deficit bog.

Malloy has repeatedly warned that "nothing can be taken off the table" when it comes to looking for new ways to pay for transportation improvements, says the governor's spokesman, Andrew Doba. "But to say he's considering [tolls] is probably too strong."

"We have no plans for that at this point," Doba insists.

Cafero is one of several potential candidates for the Republican gubernatorial nomination next year, and he's looking at the toll thing with very wary eyes.

"I'm open to it, but I say that cautiously," Cafero explains. He says toll technology has come a long way since the days of toll plazas and the hideous backups and pollution they caused.

But Cafero adds he's real worried about simply using toll revenues to plug more budget holes.

Connecticut has tried putting special types of revenue into special funds for particular purposes (like gas taxes for transportation or gambling revenue for education), "and we never keep our word," grumbles Cafero. He says those dollars always seem to get tapped for other problems when the state gets into budget trouble.

When the question of whether he could support tolls as a candidate for governor comes up, Cafero gets as skittish as Malloy. "I said I'd study it — I didn't say I'd support it."

Two fatal events in Connecticut history are wrapped up in the toll debate.

In January 1983, a tractor-trailer driven by Charlie Klutz smashed into the Stratford toll plaza. The fiery wreck killed seven people and eventually convinced lawmakers to get rid of all tolls in the state.

Just five months later, a piece of the Mianus River Bridge on I-95 in Greenwich collapsed. Three people died.

Investigations and studies pointed the finger of blame at years of inadequate maintenance and neglect, caused in part by the state's refusal to allocate enough money for highway and bridge repairs. The bridge tragedy forced the General Assembly to launch a multi-billion-dollar effort to rehabilitate Connecticut's dilapidated bridges and roads.