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Opinion: We needed highway tolls before, and we need them again

How did we get here?

Recognizing that “transportation is the backbone of our economy,” Gov. Dannel Malloy in 2014 undertook a transportation initiative called Transform Connecticut intended to produce a strategic plan to improve the state’s transportation system so as to promote economic growth. After analyzing the existing system and obtaining input from numerous concerned citizens and groups around the state, the Connecticut Department of Transportation released a report called LET’S GO CT that Governor Malloy presented to the Legislature in February 2015.

LET’S GO CT presented a bold plan for improving each of the state’s multi-modal transportation systems—highways and bridges, rail and bus, air and water. In total, the itemized improvements were estimated to cost a staggering $100 billion over the next 30 years. Of that sum, two-thirds, or $66 billion, was to be spent simply to maintain the existing system, while the remaining $34 billion would be used to expand the capacity of each system to accommodate future growth in population, commerce and traffic volumes.

Next, the governor appointed a panel of legislative and business leaders to recommend strategies for funding the transportation improvements included in LET’S GO CT. The Finance Panel reported their findings in January, 2016. They included recommendations for new sources of revenue the panel believed would keep the state’s Special Transportation Fund (STF) solvent for at least the next 15 years. Beyond that they thought financing for the program could be better evaluated when the time came.

At the core of their revenue-raising recommendations were proposals to return the gas tax to the level of the 1990s, when it was 39 cents per gallon, and to implement electronic tolling to help pay specifically for improvements in two of the state’s major travel corridors: along the shoreline route from New York to Rhode Island, and through the center of the state from New York to Hartford. The Finance Panel also insisted that the new revenues be dedicated solely to transportation improvements, and not be used to meet the non-transportation needs of the state’s General Fund.

To this end, the panel recommended a new constitutional amendment to protect all transportation revenues.

 

Didn’t we have tolls before?

Tolls have been used to pay for transportation improvements in Connecticut since colonial times and the early days of nationhood, beginning with ferries in the 1630s, bridges in the 1760s, and highways in the 1790s. Tolls were seen then, as now, as the fairest way to fund any transportation project since only those individuals who use a given facility —be it ferry, bridge or highway— are made to pay for it’s construction and maintenance.

With the coming of the automobile, the state’s modern system of paved highways was funded not by the collection of highway tolls, but rather by fees paid to the Division of Motor Vehicles (DMV) to register each vehicle and license its driver (beginning in 1907) and with a tax on the gasoline used to power that vehicle (beginning in 1921).

The rapid growth of automobile ownership and miles traveled during the first decades of the century allowed the Connecticut Highway Department to convert the state’s existing network of dirt roads to a modern, paved highway network of nearly 2,500 miles using these two motor vehicle taxes alone. Up to 1923, toll revenue was still used to build many of the state’s modern highway bridges. But in that year, tolls were removed from all highway bridges in Connecticut, and from then on through the 1930s state highways and bridges were improved solely from revenue raised through DMV fees and gasoline taxes.

With the construction of the first controlled access expressways in the 1930s, the state returned to the collection of tolls to help pay for this new and expensive kind of highway. Tollbooths were first erected in the late 1930s and early 1940s on the Merritt and Wilbur Cross parkways, and again in the early 1950s to pay for the Greenwich – Killingly Expressway, also known as the Connecticut Turnpike, which was built in the years before the federal interstate system was funded.

With passage of the Interstate Highway Act of 1956, the portion of the Connecticut Turnpike from Greenwich to Waterford paid for with state funds was transferred to the federal interstate system as I-95, and the tolls were allowed to remain. Certain high-level expressway bridges, including the Baldwin Bridge over the Connecticut River and the Gold Star Memorial Bridge over the Thames River, were also built and maintained through the collection of tolls.

In the mid 1980s, as the bonds that built the Connecticut Turnpike were about to be paid in full, residents along the route lobbied the legislature to remove all tolls from I-95. A fiery accident in January of 1986, in which several persons were killed while stopped at one of the toll stations, brought the matter to a head. Toll stations were now seen as dangerous obstacles to the normal flow of traffic, and the legislature decided to remove all tollbooths not just from I-95, but also from the Merritt and Wilbur Cross parkways, and all existing toll bridges in the state as well.

The removal was done in stages, but by the end of the 1980s, Connecticut for the second time in its history had become a toll free state.

To compensate for the loss of toll revenue, the state gasoline tax increased dramatically over the next few years, from 25 cents to 39 cents per gallon. As with the current toll issue, the increase in gas taxes soon became a political football, and by the late 1990s, the state had acquiesced to public pressure, and reduced the gas tax by 14 cents a gallon, without replacing the income needed to fund the state’s ongoing transportation commitments. As a result, projects scheduled for the early 2000s were cancelled or postponed.

Commenting on the high cost of ConnDOT’s current LET’S GO CT plan, the Finance Panel noted: “if the gas tax had not been reduced, the STF would have been able to execute on hundreds of projects that are now part of Connecticut’s backlog, and the price tag for LET’S GO CT would be significantly lower.” The new tolls proposed for Connecticut highways are in a way an effort to replace the stream of gas tax revenues lost in the 1990s. Also, as the Finance Panel noted, that alone will likely not be sufficient to keep the STF solvent for the next 15 years. A gas tax increase “back to the 1990s rate of 39¢ per gallon” was also recommended.

What is the real problem?

Connecticut has been in an ongoing budget crunch since the 1970s, due largely to the increasing cost of social programs (from education to health care and welfare) that originated in the 1960s as part of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society initiative. One tack taken by legislators to balance these budget shortfalls was to use funds dedicated to transportation improvements for non-transportation uses.

For example, in 1975, the existing transportation fund was dissolved, and all monies placed in the General Fund instead. Transportation projects then had to compete with social programs for funding, and many projects, and especially maintenance, were deferred as a result, leading to the Mianus River Bridge collapse of 1986. In the aftermath of that tragedy, the STF was reinstated, but as budget shortfalls continued, legislators created dubious loopholes and other financial slights of hand to continue their use of dedicated transportation funding to balance the state’s general budget.

The need to prevent such practices finally led the voters of Connecticut to approve a constitutional amendment in 2018 (as recommended by the Finance Panel) to deter such shenanigans in the future.

Gov. Ned Lamont, who has taken up the mantle of Connecticut transportation from Malloy, is expected to call Connecticut legislators into special session this summer to discuss two issues critical to the state’s overall economic health. One concerns how much additional debt to incur in order to balance the current budget shortfall. The matter of state debt and budget shortfalls is a complex issue that has resulted from decades of unsavory tactics, such as deferred pension payments, to balance ever-increasing shortfalls in the general budget. It is a complex issue that will involve difficult debate over the cutting of established social programs, and take many years and a tremendous amount of political will to resolve.

The other issue concerns whether to reinstate tolls on certain Connecticut expressways. Considered separate from the debt problem, the toll question is both simple and straightforward. History tells us that removing tolls from Connecticut highways and bridges in the 1980s was a financial mistake, as was the lowering of the gasoline tax in the 1990s.

A safe, up-to-date transportation system is a must for long-term economic growth, and tolls are the most equitable way to collect the revenue necessary to provide such a system directly from those who use it, including the large portion of travelers (in some areas as much as 40 percent) who travel into and through Connecticut but come from New York and Massachusetts. We must not take out our frustration over the state’s ongoing budget crisis on the issue of highway tolls. Funding Connecticut’s transportation future is an equally important but separate issue. We need highway tolls to provide the financing necessary to build the projects proposed in LET’S GO CT and bring transportation in the state (and the economic growth it makes possible) back up to speed.

Richard DeLuca has just completed a two-volume history of transportation developments in Connecticut from colonial times through to the administrations of Malloy and Lamont. Volume one. Post Roads & Iron Horses, was published by Wesleyan University Press in 2011. Volume two, Paved Roads & Public Money, is scheduled for publication next spring.

This op-ed previously appeared on CTViewpoints.org.

20 comments

Piberman August 4, 2019 at 9:02 am

Transportation issues, real or imagined, doesn’t explain why CT is the only State in the nation with a stagnant economy and employment level for an entire decade with the largest exodus of residents relative to its size in the nation. “Taxes and spending” are the crux. Along with our lacking any middle class cities to encourage business investment and jobs growth. Tolls merely divert attention from the requirement to reduce taxes and spending.

Diane Lauricella August 4, 2019 at 9:56 am

Very interesting and I agree with author about need to bring back tolls, albeit well-managed and electronic with capabilities such as electronic discounts for CT residents and businesses. The recent Constitutional protection was of monumental importance.

A well-managed toll system is a USER FEE, pure and simple, no matter what toll naysayers say!!

I want to read the book when it becomes available…

…However, the author seems to leave out additional ways that CT fell into debt, including federal policies that reduced financial support to states…including uneven and inadequate federal fund contribution to state/local education support, infrastructure and environmental protection enforcement, forcing states and municipalities to fend for themselves…which then sometimes lead to additional poor policy decisions at home.

John Miller August 4, 2019 at 11:58 am

When the subject of the gas tax comes up, there never seems to be any mention of the 8.1 percent gross receipts (wholesale) tax which brings the total tax that Connecticut consumers pay at the pump to more than fifty cents per gallon. Does this additional tax not go to the STF?

There is no doubt that tolls are needed. Particularly now that the STF has been protected by a constitutional amendment and the finds can’t ne squandered. The fact that cars are.much more fuel efficient than they were in the 1980’s and more people are driving hybrid and electric vehicles makes the imposition of a use tax more critical than ever.

Finally, let’s stop blaming the federal government for our fiscal woes. They were self administered.

Gail Berritt August 4, 2019 at 3:06 pm

Thank you Nancy for describing the history of funding the roads in CT. It’s always helpful to have a historical perspective. I completely agree that tolls are needed as part of a funding plan to improve transportation in CT. Nothing endangers our competitiveness more than sub-standard infrastructure. Our Democratic Assembly leaders need to do their job and rally their Democratic colleagues, including explaining to them and the public why tolls are less regressive than increasing the gas tax, which is where this conversation is going if they don’t get tolls passed. And, it’s not enough to toll select bridges. To raise enough money and have the burden shared fairly, we need tolls on 95, 91, 84 and 15, as was proposed by the Lamont administration. Face it, Republicans see this as a political wedge issue and will never come around even if, privately, they know it’s the right move for the state. So the Dems might as well do the right thing and get common sense tolls passed in a special session. It’s not going to hurt them any more than doing nothing will. And, we Nutmeggers, will get stuck holding the bill plus interest for decades to come.

Diane Keefe August 4, 2019 at 7:52 pm

Let’s get the tolls done now. I love living in Norwalk as a home office owning consultant but I pity the folks who have to commute on Rt 95 and the Merritt at commuter time. The congestion represents a time tax noone who works for a living should have to tolerate.

The proposed tolls are only 42 cents per 10 miles. Ensuring our bridges and roads are safe and well maintained is worth it. And I completely agree with the plan to decrease public transit fares from $1.75 to a $1. The Republicans cant get away with claiming tolls are regressive with the discounts offered nutmeggers in the Lamont Plan.

Besides the time tax that results from horrible traffic jams, user fees have worked in other places to decrease air pollution and congestion. Why can’t CT have even cleaner air. In summer when the air pollution is worse, the elderly, asthmatics and those with heart problems run the risk of serious health problems from dirty air. It’s senseless to live with the consequences of oxone pollution created by cars idling in the summer heat on summer days when they should be going at least 40 mpg
Re-starting tolls will attract 21st century business leaders who want to live in a state that makes intelligent policy choices. The drum beat of negativity by the Republicans is a false narrative.
I’ll take a state that pays for it’s roads instead of the borrowing plan Republicans recommend that will just increase The interest burden and crowd out other social programs that can address the vast inequality we face.
The Lamont administration is proposing this for the good of all residents of the state and letting out of staters pay for 40% of it.

It’s time to move past the naysayers and make real transportation progress in CT.

Bridget P August 4, 2019 at 8:59 pm

Republicans are 100% correct to stand united against tolls and the governor should take note from the state’s residents that tolls are unanimously rejected. . . The state is a noncompetitive basket cast and legislators must unwind decades of massive welfare spending growth and labor giveaways which coincidentally account for 2/3rd of the state’s budget. Further, more regulations must be unwound to unleash the free markets and promote economic vitality.

AL August 5, 2019 at 8:36 am

Back in the day you had tolls and no income tax. The pro-toll groups never mention that. And the Mianus River Bridge collapse had nothing to do with lack of funding and everything to do with incompetence on the state level.
Your toll revenue will vanish into the General Fund, one way or another.
Look at your surrounding states to see the future.
MassDot. PA Toll Authority. MTA/Port Authority.

Mike Mushak August 5, 2019 at 9:58 am

We need tolls now to help small businesses like mine that waste much of our time and therefore our profits sitting in traffic.

By my calculations based on published toll rates, I will spend less than $1,000 a year on tolls but save over $10,000 on lost time sitting on highways (surrounded by out-of-state cars and trucks) getting to jobs in Fairfield County.

And the tolls will be used to upgrade our obsolete transportation system including our crucial rail system. This is for future generations as much as it is for us, and the desperate Republicans in CT have politicized it for short term gain with no concern for our future. Considering their opinions on climate change, it simply reveals a deep pattern of ignorance. Shame on all of them.

Will Erdef August 5, 2019 at 11:42 am

Kudos to the Republicans for boldly standing united against tolls. CT must cut costs and tolls will only be used as an endless ATM to fuel the state’s addiction to spending. Further, as the poster child for one of the highest tax states and a Democrat governor with the lowest approval rating of any states, it is time connect with the average citizen and abandon this idea.

LadyDrivr August 5, 2019 at 12:07 pm

I’m mixed about tolls or no tolls, but tell me Mike, how will this work? You state, “We need tolls now to help small businesses like mine that waste much of our time and therefore our profits sitting in traffic.”

Where will all the traffic go? Route 1, Connecticut Ave.? Main Ave? When people use Waze and Googlemaps to avoid tolls, where will all those cars go? Won’t they go to the surface roads, adding congestion to local traffic patterns, thus just shifting the pattern to accommodate their desire NOT to pay?

Bryan Meek August 5, 2019 at 1:27 pm

Toll revenues are needed to fund the bankrupted pension system. There is already enough taxes ($2bn a year) on petroleum to build gold plated highways across the state. There is pretty much nothing left to tax that won’t diminish the returns, although this will eventually. It’s the last gasp of a dysfunctional government before bankruptcy, which is inevitable at the state level. The comptroller is 4 days late with his latest report. They are trying to hide the fact that revenue is falling short and the $700 bn “surplus” is just a big fat accounting gimmick. The state needed to collect $3bn in June, when we only average 1.4bn a month. See exhibit C of the July 1 report. https://www.osc.ct.gov/reports/index.html

Bryan Meek August 5, 2019 at 1:29 pm

Oh, and before the bike lane to no where guy chimes in with another Trump diatribe, let me say it’s all Rowlands fault. Malloy, Duff, Lamont…they are all just victims.

AL August 5, 2019 at 4:22 pm

Who drank the Bergstein Kool-Aid regarding tolls and traffic?!
Tools will do NOTHING to alleviate congestion. Wait until they are implemented in downtown NYC if you want proof! Or check the bridges and tunnels as well. Fifty cents to cross the GW in 1931 is now $15, and going up.
It is all just a revenue grab with false hopes,empty promises and a the usual graft and corruption. Anybody who tells you different is being deceitful.

Mike Mushak August 5, 2019 at 11:16 pm

@AL, your argument is completely bogus!

You said it cost 50 cents to cross the GWB in 1931, and now it costs $15, and you call this “deceitful.”

That 50 cents in 1931 is equivalent in purchasing power to $8.25 in 2018. Since vehicles were charged tolls in both directions in 1931, unlike now where they are only charged in one direction assuming a round trip for most vehicles, the total to cross the bridge in 1931 was $16.50 in 2018 dollars, compared to the current toll of $15 assuming your comment was correct in this claim.

So, using simple math it was more expensive to cross the bridge in 1931 than in 2018.

This kind of fuzzy math from the Republican anti-toll propaganda machine is typical, and not unexpected considering it’s from the same party that denies climate change and believes Obama was born in Kenya.

GOP ignorance strikes again.

Bryan Meek August 6, 2019 at 6:38 am

More Mushak Math. 50 cents to 8.25 would be a 1600% increase.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics it’s less than 300%. https://data.bls.gov/cgi-bin/cpicalc.pl?cost1=1&year1=198101&year2=201906

So in the real world, the GWB today would cost $3 one way.

Here’s Mushak’s trifecta. 1600% inflation. Bike lanes to no where on Belden. And million dollar apartments made out of 1x3s and 3/8in sheet rock.

Seriously, you don’t have to wonder why the city is a laughing stock when it comes to planning when you can see first hand on these pages the thought process being applied here.

Bryan Meek August 6, 2019 at 6:41 am

Again, tolls are necessary. But one nickel isn’t going to make it into the roadway. The state is broke.

5 days later and still no report. They are desperately trying to cook the books right now to plug the $1.5 billion hole. They can’t steal all of it from the teachers pension fund. Not at once anyway.

https://www.osc.ct.gov/reports/index.html

AL August 6, 2019 at 8:39 am

Mike see’s boogeymen if someone disagrees.
OK. Point taken. But what was my Ct./national income tax in 1931?
How about the Golden Gate Bridge? The perfect example of how to finance a bridge. The bonds were paid off in forty years and…where has all the money gone since? Eight dollars to cross with congestion pricing planned. I am not complaining. The Bay Area is public transportation Nirvana as far as I am concerned in spite of flaws.
Ned has promised all he can and more to get the ball rolling and folks are not convinced for a reason. Government in this state can’t be trusted.
No doubt we will get tolls and a toll authority but we will still have seven hour Metro North trips before we get 30-30-30.

AL August 6, 2019 at 3:59 pm

Something simple, like the Ct. DECD is abused beyond belief. Malloy spent over $1.4 BILLION of your tax dollars with his corporate welfare dreams and we are going to pay that debt down for forty++ years if they don’t push it out with the rest of Connecticut’s junk debt. Today’s news?!
Windsor Marketing declares bankruptcy even though they collected $3.5 MILLION from Corrupticut’s DECD.
Trust this state with toll revenue?? Do so knowing it will vanish into the gaping maw of the General Fund.

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