Advocates of bringing tolls back to Connecticut’s major highways think they’ve found a better way to approach the problem. And with so-called congestion pricing, they just might be right.
In the last few weeks, talk of congestion pricing to address rush-hour bottlenecks has been all the rage in Connecticut, with transportation officials from Florida, Washington, and California traveling to Hartford and Bridgeport to speak at panel forums about how such methods could not only raise revenues but relieve crowding on the state’s busiest highways during rush hour.
And some of those same officials appeared last week on WNPR’s Where We Live to make the same pitch. They agreed reinstating tolls would be a tough sell considering the state’s history.
State residents who are old enough to remember were horrified at the fiery tractor-trailer crash in 1983 that killed seven people at the Stratford toll plaza on the Connecticut Turnpike. That grisly accident, coupled with complicated formulas for federal highway funds the state received for the reconstruction of the collapsed Mianus River Bridge six months later, put considerable pressure on the state to abolish road tolls, which it did during the O’Neill administration two years after Stratford. At the time, the closing 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.
So the gross receipts tax on petroleum products, also known as the hidden tax for its lack of transparency, essentially took the place of the tolls. Monies from the hidden tax were supposed to go into a special fund for transportation infrastructure improvement.
But that fund has been raided regularly by lawmakers looking for easy ways to plug budget gaps. Who’s to say the additional revenue generated by tolls would fare any differently? If lawmakers can find a foolproof way of creating a so-called “lock box” for revenue generated by new tolls, then I would be in favor of reinstating them. Here’s why:
With modern technology, the creation of a costly new bureaucracy to administer the tolls would be obviated. I’m sure state employee unions aren’t thrilled about it, but there would be no need to hire hundreds of toll collectors with union contracts, civil service status, and defined-benefit pensions.
The reason is actually quite simple. Modern tolls systems are capable of collecting money through in-vehicle transponders and overhead devices capable of reading license plates and other identifiers. Tolls can be automatically charged to credit or debit cards.
The fact that no toll booths will be needed — with their plazas, booths and change buckets — should appease those who worry about a repeat of Stratford. And if tolls are instituted, the absence of the booths will help motorists conserve fuel since there will be no need to stop and wait in line to pitch money into the buckets or get change from an attendant, as there was in the old days.
But perhaps the most compelling reason is to make life a little less maddening for motorists who sit in traffic or creep along on the state’s most heavily traveled corridors. I live among the bears and coyotes of the Northwest Corner, but I’m told by friends downstate that the situation on I-95 and the Merritt Parkway is quickly becoming intolerable.
Charging more for those who use the state’s busiest highways at the worst times creates incentives to travel at off-peak hours, to carpool, or to use alternative means of transportation. Of course, if the state really wants more motorists to use its commuter rail services, then it had better get off its fat butt and fix the shoreline rail infrastructure.
To wit, a chronically malfunctioning train bridge in Norwalk visited more delays on thousands of Metro-North commuters in Fairfield County earlier this month. Notwithstanding the bluster and outrage exhibited by Gov. Dannel P. Malloy and Sen. Richard Blumenthal, the bridge is owned by the state of Connecticut, so they have no one to blame but themselves, past governors, and the General Assembly for sticking their hands in the cookie jar of the transportation fund.
So there you have it. The reinstatement of tolls could help address the deterioration of our transportation infrastructure and make up for revenue shortfalls from the gross receipts tax as fuel-efficient vehicles command a greater share of the market. On the other hand, if the governor and lawmakers don’t reassure the public and address the matter of raiding the transportation fund, then they can forget it, as far as I’m concerned.