After almost 30 years of free-and-clear sailing on its interstates, will Connecticut finally bury the ghosts of tragedies past and reinstate tolls on its freeways?
Rep. Pat Dillon of New Haven is introducing a bill during the current legislative session to do just that. And the state Department of Transportation is studying the possibility of putting tolls on interstates 84 and 95.
It would be terribly unpopular, to be sure. After all, through some of the highest fuel taxes in the nation, we Nutmeggers already pay handsomely for the privilege of driving. But, as cars become more fuel efficient, revenues from those gas taxes are declining, causing paroxysms of angst among the spending class in Hartford, most of whom urged us to drive those environmentally friendly cars in the first place. And you can be sure that road tolls take on added luster as lawmakers ponder the irresistible fact that a Prius would pay the same price to traverse the state as a Hummer.
Further constraining revenues is not only the state’s high unemployment rate and glacial job-growth, but the decline of casino gambling. As recently as 2010, the state raked in almost $345 million as its share of slot-machine revenues from Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun, down 2 percent from the year before.
And it gets worse. After Gov. Deval Patrick signed legislation in 2011 allowing three casinos in the Bay State, a University of Massachusetts study predicted the eastern Connecticut resorts could lose 20 percent of their customers from increased competition over the next several years. That means not only lower slot revenues but lower sales-tax receipts from diners and hotel guests. So we must reinstate tolls, right?
Not so fast. A fiery tractor-trailer crash in 1983 killed seven people at the Stratford toll plaza on the Connecticut Turnpike. That tragic event, coupled with complicated formulas for federal highway funds the state received for the reconstruction of the collapsed Mianus River Bridge six months later, put enormous pressure on Connecticut to abolish road tolls, which it did during the O’Neill administration in 1985. At the time, the shuttering of the toll booths on I-95, the Wilbur Cross and Merritt parkways, and the Charter Oak Bridge cost the state $65 million a year in lost revenue.
And the reinstatement of tolls is hardly a fait accompli, either. Almost a year ago, when I was interviewing Gov. Dannel Malloy in his Capitol office with the rest of the CT News Junkie editorial board, we learned during the interview that federal officials had rejected Rhode Island’s plan to place toll booths on I-95 near the Connecticut line.
Like politicians everywhere, officials in Little Rhody no doubt concluded they would face less local opposition if they put collection booths on the fringes of their state. That way, they could soak out-of-state travelers who, conveniently, cannot vote in Rhode Island. But the Federal Highway Administration, which must approve state requests to place tolls on Interstate highways, balked.
“It was a single location at the border, which had an interesting look to the federal government,” said Malloy, who added that he would be open to bringing back tolls in his state as a way of paying for infrastructure improvements and bringing down the gasoline tax.
But in addition to regulatory concerns, there are popular barriers to putting tolls in our state. Not only would motorists strain to open their wallets, but putting a Rhode-Island-style toll booth at, say, I-84 at the New York state line, would surely discourage interstate commerce in Danbury, home to the state’s second largest shopping mall.
Then there also is the matter of short-term revenues needed to plug gaping holes in the budget. As the Norwich Bulletin pointed out in an editorial, it would take several years to put tolls into place. Yet the problem we face is far more immediate.
Even more troubling is the tendency of lawmakers to divert specific tax revenues away from the purposes for which they were intended. Take, for example, the “invisible tax” — the gross receipts charge on petroleum products imposed at the wholesale level but passed on to the consumer by retailers. Proceeds from that tax were supposed to fund transportation projects exclusively, but for several years, more than half those dollars were diverted into the general fund. Can we really trust lawmakers to rid themselves of that habit after the toll booths are built and the dollars start flying out of motorists’ windows?
As a resident of Connecticut’s far northwest corner, I’m all for more tolls if it means spending other people’s money. With the possible exception of Route 8, there simply are no limited access highways up here suitable for monetizing.
What Connecticut needs is an economic development policy that encourages business and rewards work. Maybe then we won’t have to bribe companies to come here. Maybe then corporations and workers won’t be fleeing to pro-growth states. Maybe then we’ll have enough people working and paying taxes to put the idea of tolls to rest.
But don’t hold your breath. It’s too damned cold here to do that anyway.