After a number of failing efforts in previous sessions to pass a highway toll, the Connecticut General Assembly succeeded on Wednesday in levying a mileage fee on tractor-trailers.
Supporters of the bill say that the fee will force heavy trucks to pay their fair share for the damage they cause to the state’s roads. Meanwhile opponents warn that the tax will increase the prices of consumer goods and will fall unfairly on Connecticut-based trucking.
In the House, where the bill passed 88-59, every Republican and six Democrats voted against the bill. Two Democrats — State Sen. Norm Needleman, D-Essex, and State Sen. Dennis Bradley, D-Bridgeport — joined the twelve Republicans in voting against the bill in the Senate, where the legislation passed 22-14 in the early hours of Wednesday morning.
“The modest fee that a truck company would have to pay us to drive the length of I-84, which is about $9, pales in comparison to the fact that, when that truck reaches the George Washington Bridge, they will pay $100 to cross one way on that bridge,” said State Rep. Sean Scanlon, D-Guilford.
Explaining his support for the bill, Scanlon said that large trucks do the most damage to highways, and don’t contribute to highway funding aside from paying the International Fuel Tax Agreement and International Registration Plan that distributes fuel taxes and registration fees to all the states a truck drives through.
It’s estimated that the new fee, which will be paid per-mile and adjusted by weight of the truck, will generate about $45 million in revenue in 2023, the first year it’s implemented, and $90 million each year after.
Joseph Sculley, president of the Motor Transport Association of Connecticut, told lawmakers in public testimony that the average five-axle tractor trailer in Connecticut pays $17,000 a year in state and federal highway fees, which he said is more than their fair share.
In lengthy comments on the House floor, State Rep. Devin Carney, R-Old Lyme, warned that the measure would fall unfairly on Connecticut’s trucking companies, who will be easier targets for collection by the state.
“We do not know how this highway use fee is going to impact trucking companies, other than this additional tax. We don’t know how it’s going to impact other industries like food service and clothing and heating oil, we don’t,” Carney said. “We also don’t know how much we’re actually going to collect from this highway use fee.”
According to Sculley, 20 states have already repealed similar weight-mile taxes. Carney said that’s an indication that the policies have failed.
State Rep. Holly Cheeseman, R-East Lyme, questioned why 18-wheel trucks were singled out instead of heavy single unit trucks, like garbage trucks.
Cheeseman called the fee an “honor system” tax and said there is evidence that smaller trucking companies have avoided paying a large portion of the taxes they owe in New York, which has a similar mileage tax for trucks.
Scanlon noted that other taxes, like the income tax, are also paid on an “honor system,” and he expressed hope that the avoidance rate wouldn’t be high. Scanlon said he thought that Tax Commissioner Mark Boughton and his investigators could “crack down with a vengeance to make sure that we get what we’re owed.”
“Even if we had a 45 percent compliance rate, we would still be getting $45 million [a year] that we’re not getting today,” Scanlon said.
Cheeseman proposed that the legislature should instead direct revenues from motor vehicle and parts sales taxes, the transportation service sales tax, and the rental car surcharge to the state’s transportation fund — funds, she said, “that were always meant to go there,” and would provide a more reliable revenue stream. That amendment failed to pass.
In the Senate, State Sen. Paul Formica, R-East Lyme, offered as an alternative the Republican’s earlier transportation proposal, which they first raised in 2019 as a substitute for tolling.
That plan would take $1.5 billion out of the state’s burgeoning rainy day budget reserve fund to pay down the state’s debt obligations. The savings, estimated at $126 million in debt service, could then be used to fund transportation. Formica said that the plan would free up more money than the mileage tax.
“There are opportunities other than just taxes,” Formica said.