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Connecticut None Too Pleased About Toll Proposal

The Chafee Administration has ticked off some folks in southwestern Rhode Island, especially State Representative Brian Patrick Kennedy, with his push to erect a toll at the Connecticut. But apparently, he's got some folks in the Nutmeg State quite cheesed off as well. This editorial ran in the Hartford Courant today:

Is Rhode Islandlike the wayward friend who never writes and never calls?

The Ocean State has applied to the federal government for permission to place tollbooths on Interstate 95 just over the Connecticut border, and done so without as much as a tweet to municipal and state officials on the Nutmeg side of the line.

State Rep. Diana Urban of nearby North Stonington blasted R.I. Gov. Lincoln Chafee: "He has not called us. He has not communicated with us." Stonington First Selectman Edward Haberek Jr., who described himself as "really upset," followed word with deed by asking the Federal Highway Administration to deny the toll request.

It was certainly bad form for Rhode Island's leaders not to touch base with their I-95 neighbors to the west. Rhode Island is doing this because it is dire need of funds to pay for transportation infrastructure. With $2 billion worth of unfunded projects on the books, so is Connecticut. Federal funding is uncertain; Congress hasn't raised the federal gas tax since 1993. Would working together be out of the question?

Rhode Island's request to toll the highway must be considered something of a long shot. Historically, federally aided interstate highways have been required to be free of tolls, and states that do toll their highways do not receive federal highway funds. A handful of narrow exceptions and pilot programs that allow tolling have developed over the years, but it is not clear that Rhode Island would qualify for any of them.

Also, as First Selectman Haberek will be quick to point out, put a toll plaza near the border and some percentage of drivers will try to avoid it — a task made easier by GPS devices — and thus clog local roads. It wouldn't take that many cars to fill those small-town two-lane roads.

Plus, there's something inequitable about soaking Connecticut and New York drivers coming into Rhode Island but not Rhode Island drivers heading into Massachusetts. Why no toll plaza at the other end of the state?

Both the states and federal government need stronger revenue streams to pay for roads, bridges and transit. Connecticut also has looked at tolling — indeed, is now studying the possibility of using tolls to pay for a new Route 11 in Southeastern Connecticut. But that is an intrastate road, for which tolling is more readily allowed. Congress should, if it ever approves a new transportation funding bill, allow a fair system of interstate tolling, preferably electronic tolling.

Meanwhile, there's I-95. Connecticut could counter Rhode Island's gambit by requesting a toll plaza on its side of the border. Then we could fight about it in court for years and never get anywhere. Or we could work together and perhaps develop something — a tolled express lane, tolls on bridges within each state — that would be mutually beneficial.

"Why no toll plaza at the other end of the state?" Well, the answer to that last question is pretty clear. From a ProJo article:

Installing tolls always comes with the prospect that drivers will look for routes around the booths. The DOT considers the southern stretch of Route 95 harder to get around than the northern stretch, Lewis said.

“It’s too urban,” Lewis said of the Route 95 stretch at the Rhode Island-Massachusetts border. “There would be too many alternatives for traffic to divert off [the highway].”

The southern part of Route 95 also is used more heavily by out-of-state drivers passing through Rhode Island than by residents.

But one does have to wonder about the political acumen of an administration that fails to give a heads up to elected officials, in the next state over, who might be less-than-pleased with a proposal.

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