I can think of nothing that would make car travel more fun than having to pay to leave the state and then again to get back in. Yes, border tolls are back again, and, despite public outrage, they have a better shot of actually happening in this transportation-focused year than ever before.
This would be a mistake, though maybe not for the reasons you think.
Here’s the situation: our transportation system is falling to pieces and the governor has plenty of big plans for how to fix it, but there’s not a lot of money to go around. Actually charging people to use the highways is one possible solution, and the idea of grabbing a toll from people crossing the border in and out of the state has come up several times over the past few years.
On the face of it, this is not a terrible plan. After all, lots of people driving through our state on their way somewhere else use our roads without actually paying for their upkeep in any way. Compare this to nearby states like New York, New Jersey, and Massachusetts, which have tolls on major thoroughfares. Tolls at the borders would be sure to catch those coming and going, while not inconveniencing the people who live in the state’s interior.
That’s part of the problem. Border tolls would disproportionately affect residents of border towns and the state’s many cross-border commuters, but only marginally impact everyone else. Politically it’s the easiest way to implement tolling, since only legislators from border districts or districts with a lot of out-of-state commuters would have to face the wrath of angry drivers. If you’re going to put up tolls at all, might as well be on the far fringes of the state instead of on I-91 in Hartford and I-95 in New Haven. It’s basically a tax for living on the border or commuting out of state.
That’s not the only problem, though. Since the tolls would be at very specific points, drivers would be tempted to avoid them by leaving the interstate and crossing the border on surface roads. That could lead to a traffic nightmare.
Lastly, border tolls could be very bad for the economies of border towns that depend on cross-border workers and customers. Both Enfield and Danbury draw a lot of shoppers from across their respective borders, for example. Even a minor inconvenience could change shopping habits and drive business away.
This, then, is one of those solutions that creates more problems than it solves.
Now, I’m not against the idea of tolls in general. Raising money for transportation projects is necessary, and tolls are a reliable way to do that. But we can’t just throw up tolls where we think there will be the least outcry and hope for the best.
If we’re going to have tolls, let’s be smart about it. We need to figure out what exactly we want to accomplish with them; tolls can be a way to collect money, certainly, but they have other uses as well. One of the ways that tolls can serve a dual purpose is to actually help fight congestion by instituting what’s called congestion pricing.
Congestion pricing is a form of tolling that’s becoming popular in cities in Europe, especially those with major traffic problems. London, for instance, has had congestion pricing for over a decade. Basically, the idea is that drivers would get charged more during times when there’s heavy traffic, and less during off-peak times. The tolls are collected through transponders and a gate instead of toll booths, so they don’t create a traffic barrier.
What this does is it charges those drivers who use the roads during the heaviest-traffic periods, and gives them an incentive to find another way to get to work. Congestion pricing, when used well and in conjunction with public transit systems, can dramatically reduce congestion. London’s system has helped make that city much more livable.
A report about the possibility of congestion pricing is due to the legislature later in the spring, but programs like this have already been proven to be effective. Oft-gridlocked highways in Hartford, New Haven, and lower Fairfield County would benefit greatly from congestion pricing. In fact, congestion pricing is one of the only ways to actually reduce traffic, which in turn would lead to less wear and tear on the roads. What’s to lose?
So instead of clunky border tolls, let’s find a more intelligent and useful way to raise money for a better transportation system. Congestion pricing deserves a serious look.
Susan Bigelow is an award-winning columnist and the founder of CTLocalPolitics. She lives in Enfield with her wife and their cats.
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