By Fred Camillo
The toll debate in Connecticut is a contentious one, drawing passionate arguments from both sides. There is no doubt the state needs to invest in transportation infrastructure. In fact, having a reliable highway system is critical for economic growth, which we desperately need.
The need was addressed following the collapse of the Mianus Bridge in June of 1983, a time many of us will never forget. Then State Sen. Michael Morano (R-36) of Greenwich took the lead on this and worked with both the legislature and then Gov. Bill O’Neil to establish the Special Transportation Fund (STF). The STF was and is supposed to be a vehicle to fund transportation related projects and expenses and stems from revenue derived from various gas taxes. However, each year the legislature and governors raid it to pay other, non-transportation related bills, which has pushed many needed repairs and projects to remain undone.
In addition to raiding the STF, Gov. Malloy removed the state troopers from the weigh stations along the highway and replaced them with Dept. of Motor Vehicle (DMV) employees, a move, I believe, was wrong on both the public safety and revenue fronts. The state troopers were the first line of defense on our borders. They also had the stations open more. It also seemed to have been run more efficiently. Just a few years back, a broken scale caused the weigh station in Greenwich to be closed for several months, something that would have been fixed in days in the private sector.
With that said, I believe that tolls are not the answer right now. With a struggling economy and an increasingly high cost of living, the cons simply outweigh the pros. For that reason, I am strongly opposed to the governor’s recent executive order requiring $10 million for a study on tolls.
Earlier this year, the legislature abandoned four tolls proposals because majority leadership determined they did not have the support from either side of the aisle to pass the legislation.
Towards the end of the 2018 Session, Republican and Democratic legislators came together to pass a bipartisan budget adjustment. This agreement funded scheduled transportation projects using existing sources of revenue, proving that if we work together, we can sustain the core functions of state government without increasing the tax burden on our residents.
Yes, our highways are congested. Yes, it is unfair that drivers passing through Connecticut are not paying their fair share. And, yes, we are one of the only states in the region that does not have highway tolls. These points are valid, and certainly have merit. Nevertheless, I am convinced that the overall costs to our residents and businesses will outweigh the benefits. Moreover, with more fuel-efficient cars on the way, there will be less revenue from these traditional taxes. However, looking to public-private partnerships are one way to address this issue and projected revenue shortfall.
It’s been estimated that over 70% of toll revenue would come from Connecticut residents, while only 30% would be paid by out-of-state-drivers. The number of tolls proposed (in some cases, 80 gantries) far exceeds the 14 locations in the state before they were decommissioned in the 1980s. In general, the installation of tolls would increase the cost of living, while decreasing the quality of life for many.
Yes, the new tolling system with the transponders above are more effective and efficient than what we were used to the last time tolls stood in our state. And yes, we can offer some sort of discount to Connecticut residents that does not run afoul of the Interstate Commerce laws, but make no mistake about it, it will cost us all more money for something we already pay for, but due to mismanagement (raids, weigh station operation hours of operation), the money is diverted or left on the table.
House Republican Leader Themis Klarides and Representative Chris Davis sent a letter to Governor Malloy urging him to reconsider his $10 million study request. He did not. A new governor can cancel this lame duck move and it is my hope that person would do that. Several on the Republican side have already committed to do just that while coming up with a real, sustained plan that addresses out transportation infrastructure without the usual, knee jerk reaction for revenue grabs at the expense of we, the citizens of an already over taxed state. I hope that our state government will continue to come together in the future to find common sense solutions to our state’s transportation problems because that is what you deserve – common sense solutions.
Circumventing the legislature and the people of Connecticut with executive orders is not the correct approach. The right approach would be a detailed plan that would stand the test of time, update our aging infrastructure, and do so without the first resort being another revenue grab.
Connecticut was once the beacon and Gateway to New England. I am convinced we can be that again and not the place that people leave from at a faster rate than most of the other 49 states. It will just take vision, bold leadership, and a return to the type of Connecticut ingenuity that the Constitution State was known for prior to the early 1990s. The examples of other locales making great comebacks abound, so let our state join them and stand out as the biggest example of what a turnaround looks like.