Committee hears testimony on tolls, cameras
Cindy Pentkoff on Monday reproached state legislators for not cutting spending, a factor she said is driving the now annual debate about instituting highway tolls in order to replenish dwindling funds for road and transit projects.
"If you ran your business like this, you'd be living under a bridge," she said. "You don`t increase taxes if you can`t pay your bills. You get paid by our dollars and we are running out."
Pentkoff, a Trumbull Board of Finance member, was among the legislators and local officials who testified at a Monday public hearing before the state's Transportation Committee on legislative proposals to reestablish tolls on state highways to help offset declining petroleum tax revenues used to support state transportation projects.
The state faces $3 billion to $5 billion in unfunded high priority transportation projects in the next few years, and $16 billion in unfunded road and transit projects over the next 20 years, according to the state Department of Transportation.
Legislators at the hearing also heard testimony on proposed red light enforcement camera legislation, offering conflicting views on whether the devices improve safety at intersections, or are primarily a revenue generator.
Penkoff said she is not without safety concerns about electronic tolls, which while more efficient, could still contribute to accidents due to cars slowing down or attempting to switch lanes.
Penkoff said her two cousins, 6-year-old Joseph Piscitelli and 18-year-old Tammy Bartron, were among the seven people killed in a January 1983 accident in which a truck plowed into the Stratford toll plaza on Interstate 95. The accident galvanized mounting disapproval of tolls in Connecticut and led both to their removal in 1985 and the addition of the gasoline tax to generate revenue.
"You can't tell me there won't be any negative safety impact to introducing these to highways which are far more congested and full of distracted drivers than 30 years ago," Penkoff said.
She said discussions of instituting measures to assure toll revenue is preserved for transportation projects rings false, given the Legislature's past maneuvers to tap into the state's Special Transportation Fund, a dedicated pool for road and transit repairs.
"I don't care if you say you will put it in a lock box, because you will find a way to take it," Penkoff said. "I don`t trust this government because of its past history."
"History shows you can't trust us," Mikutel said. "That's a fact."
Ridgefield First Selectman Rudy Marconi said while they are unpalatable to some, reestablishing tolls as a revenue source for transportation projects was the most credible solution to upgrade Connecticut's travel infrastructure, especially the New Haven Line, which has suffered from years of neglect.
"We can't just cut our way out of the state's financial issues," he said.
Mikutel told Marconi he was leery of resorting to a long-term public-private partnership that would let a private firm rebuild highways or infrastructure in return for collecting tolls or user fees.
"It's happened in other states where the consumer, taxpayer, and the government has lost control of the roads, with very bad results," Mikutel said.
State Rep. Gail Lavielle, R-Wilton, and state Sen. Scott Frantz, R-Greenwich, said the Legislature and Gov. Dannel P. Malloy should focus on reprioritizing spending to pay for long overdue projects rather than seek new revenue to do so.
"Until we have a mechanism in place to dedicate all transportation revenues, including mass transit fares and fuel taxes, to our transportation needs I believe it is inappropriate to seek more," Lavielle said.
State Rep. Angel Arce Jr., D-Hartford, testified at the hearing about a bill that would allow municipalities to install red light cameras at accident-prone intersections.
Arce said he believes such a camera would have helped authorities locate the hit-and-run driver who struck his father, 78-year-old Angel Arce Sr., in May 2008. His father died a year later from injuries inflicted in the accident.
"This is about public safety, not about revenue," Arce said.
Andrew L. Schneider, executive director of the Connecticut American Civil Liberties Union, said red light cameras raise due-process issues because the ticket citations are created by a camera, not a law enforcement officer.
Because of the process' automated nature, those cited can receive their tickets in the mail a month or more later, hindering their ability to recall specifics of the incident.
"What reasonable person is going to be able to recall the circumstances clearly of going through that intersection?" Schneider said.
Schneider said research shows extending the duration of yellow lights at intersections improves safety more effectively than red light cameras.
"The worst thing is that we're being asked to trade off civil liberties for something that doesn't yield a safety improvement and that doesn't seem like much of a trade off," he said.
Richard Retting, a traffic engineer for Sam Schwartz Engineering, a Washington, D.C., traffic engineering firm, told legislators red light enforcement camera programs can reduce the running of red lights by 40 to 90 percent.
Retting, who appeared on behalf of Redflex Traffic Systems, a major vendor of traffic enforcement systems, said running red lights is mostly an aggressive driving behavior, rather than something people occasionally commit.
"Red light cameras are very effective and do help save lives," Retting said. "We're not talking about people who happened to get caught in a particular situation; most of the time it is deliberate."