Attorney General: Honorable James F. Sullivan, Department of Transportation, 1998-009 Formal Opinion, Attorney General of Connecticut

Attorney General's Opinion

Attorney General Richard Blumenthal

July 9, 1998

Honorable James F. Sullivan
Department of Transportation
2800 Berlin Turnpike
Newington, CT 06131

Dear Commissioner Sullivan:

This is in response to your letter dated June 2, 1998, in which you request our opinion regarding the scope of authority delegated to the State Traffic Commission ("Commission") to establish speed limits on multiple lane, limited access state highways. More specifically, you ask whether or not the Commission has the authority to establish a speed limit above fifty-five (55) miles per hour but less than the sixty-five (65) miles per hour maximum speed limit set forth in Conn. Public Acts No. 98-181, Sec. 1. In our opinion, the Commission has not been given such authority in P.A. No. 98-181.

The General Statutes of Connecticut provide, in part, that "[t]he State Traffic Commission may determine speed limits which are reasonable and safe on any state highway, bridge or parkway built or maintained by the state, and differing limits may be established for different types of vehicles, and may erect or cause to be erected signs indicating such speeds limits." Conn. Gen. Stat.  14-218a(a). Prior to the enactment of P.A. No. 98-181, the Commission's authority to establish such speed limits was restricted by the legislature to a maximum speed limit of 55 miles per hour. See, e.g., Conn. Gen. Stat.  14-219(a)(2) (Revised to 1997); see also, Regs., Conn. State Agencies  14-298-235 ("The maximum speed limit for all vehicles on limited access state highways shall be 55 miles per hour."). In the 1998 Session of the General Assembly, however, the legislature modified the 55 miles per hour maximum speed limitation for certain highways. According to Section 1 of P.A. No. 98-181: "The State Traffic Commission shall establish a speed limit of sixty-five miles per hour on any multiple lane, limited access highways that are suitable for a speed limit of sixty-five miles per hour, taking into consideration relevant factors including design, population of area and traffic flow."

With respect to the above-quoted language of P.A. No. 98-181, you have indicated that certain multiple lane limited access highways, or sections thereof, might be suitable to accommodate traffic speeds in excess of 55 miles per hour but not a 65 miles per hour limit. For example, certain highways might reasonably handle traffic at 60 miles per hour. This being the case, you pose the question as to whether the Commission has the authority, consistent with P.A. 98-181, to establish a speed limit between 55 and 65 miles per hour -- e.g., 60 miles per hour -- for those highways that are not suitable for a speed limit of 65 miles per hour.

In addressing your question regarding the scope of authority delegated to the Commission in P.A. No. 98-181, we are guided by certain well-established principles of statutory construction. "The starting point in any case involving a question of statutory construction must be the language used by the legislature." Nickel Mine Brook Associates v. Joseph E. Sakal, P.C., 217 Conn. 361, 364, 584 A.2d 1210 (1991). "If the language of a statute is plain and unambiguous, we need look no further than the words actually used because we assume that the language expresses the legislature's intent." Office of Consumer Counsel v. Department of Public Utility Control, 234 Conn. 624, 642, 662 A.2d 1251 (1995).

Here the language of P.A. No. 98-181 expresses a clear legislative intent that the Commission is to survey the multiple lane limited access highways which traverse the state with an eye towards increasing the speed limits on these highways if appropriate. If the Commission determines that a particular highway, or portion thereof, is suitable for a speed limit of 65 miles per hour, the legislature has further directed the Commission to establish such a speed limit on the highway. That is, the legislature has stated that the Commission "shall" rather than "may" establish a 65 miles per hour speed limit if the highway is suitable for such speed. Moreover, the language in the public act does not provide that the Commission can set a speed limit "up to" 65 miles per hour; rather the public act specifies 65 miles per hour. Thus, the plain language of the public act argues against the Commission having the authority to establish an intermediate speed limit.

Our opinion also finds support in the legislative history of P.A. 98-181. For example, Representative Simmons (43rd Dist.), who was a co-sponsor of the legislation, made the following comments on the bill, as amended, which became P.A. No. 98-181:

Essentially what Senate Amendment "A" did was eliminate the specific references to the specific roads. In my opinion and in the opinion of LCO, that does not change the roads that will be eligible under these criteria. And these criteria include road design, population of area, and traffic flow. And for example, in the federal guidelines they limited the higher speeds to rural areas located outside of urbanized areas of 50,000 or more which met certain criteria. So, I believe that the language incorporates the very concerns that several of the previous speakers had. If you look at it carefully, it says the State Traffic Commission shall establish a speed limit of 65 miles per hour. When we original did the bill we said "may" and we said "up to". But I'm told by the attorneys that the language under Senate Amendment "A" continues to have the requisite protections. Nonetheless, I think it's fair to say that we would be prepared to add some language to the tech reviso bill if this continues to be a problem.

In sum, it is our opinion that P.A. 98-181 does not authorize the State Traffic Commission to establish speed limits on multiple lane limited access highways that fall between 55 miles per hour and 65 miles per hour.

Very truly yours,

RICHARD BLUMENTHAL
ATTORNEY GENERAL

Cornelius F. Tuohy
Assistant Attorney General

RB:CFT:rwg


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