HARTFORD, Conn. — A tractor trailer that slammed into four cars and killed seven people at a Connecticut tollbooth three decades ago led to the end of tolls on the state's highways.
Now, a leading Connecticut lawmaker is pushing to bring them back.
While Connecticut House Speaker Joe Aresimowicz said Wednesday it doesn't appear he has the votes to do that before the session ends May 9, he warns the issue will not be going away given the state's fiscal struggles.
"I believe whoever the governor is, regardless of political party, is going to come in here in January. And in the first meeting they have, they're going to say, "Oh no, what do we do?" And that's going to happen," the Democrat said of tolls.
Aresimowicz, who narrowly won re-election two years ago, said Wednesday he's willing to put his election "on the line over tolls" because it's the right thing to do. However, he acknowledged it doesn't appear that enough of his colleagues in the General Assembly share that sentiment in this election year.
The 1983 fatal truck crash on Interstate 95 in Stratford created pressure to remove the tollbooths, and they were eliminated from the highway within three years. Additional legislation called for tolls to be stricken from other state highways by 1988.
Democratic Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, who is not seeking re-election, has endorsed a return of tolls — electronic ones this time — warning that $4.3 billion in transportation projects will have to be delayed or canceled if there isn't new revenue generated.
State Democrats have predicted tolls could eventually generate about $1.2 billion a year.
But skepticism remains as to whether tolling would generate that much and whether Connecticut should join neighboring states like New York and Massachusetts with tolls. Opponents argue that state citizens are already taxed too much.
That has created a challenge for passing this year's two-part bill, which requires a study and recommendations for a tolling system from the Department of Transportation, including multiple discounts for state residents, before the General Assembly would give any final go-ahead.
"This is the lightning rod for everyone who is dissatisfied. This has sent them right over the top," said Sen. Toni Boucher, R-Wilton. She said tolls would be another tax in a state "that has already been devastated by too many additional taxes."
Aresimowicz complained there's too much misinformation about tolls.
"When you have people that want to paint the picture that Connecticut sucks at all costs and any new thing is going to force people out of this state, it's a tough narrative to overcome," he said.
Some lawmakers just wanted to get the ball rolling on a plan in the General Assembly.
"We have been talking about this for a number of years," said Rep. Antonio "Tony" Guerrera, D-Rocky Hill, the co-chairman of the legislature's Transportation Committee. "You need some type of blueprint here and we don't have that."
Connecticut Republican leaders disagree that tolls are inevitable, saying they have a proposal that will shore up the state's transportation account without tolling by prioritizing borrowing.
"We are tired ... of this state pick-pocketing all of the constituents in our state," said Senate Republican Leader Len Fasano. "Enough is enough. You don't have to do it."
The push for tolls comes as the state's transportation fund is projected to be in deficit beginning in fiscal year 2019, with a $38.1 million shortfall.
It's expected to grow to $216.1 million by fiscal year 2022, for a cumulative total of $388.1 million over the next five years — deficits that will prevent the state from being able to sell bonds for transportation.