Gov. Dannel P. Malloy is warning us that without quick intervention, Connecticut’s Special Transportation Fund will be underwater by 2019. There’s no quick fix, no easy solution, and no way out that isn’t going to be painful. All aboard!
One of the unpopular opinions I hold is that I genuinely like and respect Dan Malloy. I don’t agree with him on everything, and sometimes he makes me want to tear my hair out. That said, he’s smart about policy and he’s always understood that transportation is absolutely vital to what’s left of Connecticut’s economy. In fact, the two achievements of his time in office that could potentially endure longer than anything else he’s done are both transportation related: CTFastrak, the bus rapid transit corridor from Hartford to New Britain that is helping to reshape the region, and the Hartford Line commuter rail opening next year.
But Malloy has faced a series of fiscal disasters every year he’s been in office, thanks to the state’s slow-to-recover economy and tax revenue that is consistently less than what the government has forecast. The latest budget cycle has been particularly grim, and there’s no end in sight.
He’s also been saddled with a legislature that never seems able to do anything right. They were unable to pass a transportation “lockbox” amendment to the state constitution by enough votes in 2015, postponing a referendum until 2018. Then they raided the fund, as they often do, to fill in holes in the general budget. The legislature also had a chance to move toward putting up tolls on the state’s highways, but that hasn’t happened either.
And so here we are with a transportation fund teetering on the edge of insolvency. That’s bad because many of our transportation projects are funded by the state selling bonds — but Wall Street won’t buy our bonds if the fund is losing money.
If the state does nothing, the only way to save money and keep the Special Transportation Fund from sinking below the waterline would be to raise bus and rail fares, reduce services, and delay or cancel transportation projects. Among the projects that could be put off: the desperately-needed reconstruction of the I-84 viaduct in Hartford, work on the West Rock tunnel, expansion of the bus fleet, improvements to Union Stations in Hartford and New Haven, and the building of new Hartford Line stations in Newington, North Haven, West Hartford, and Enfield.
That’s right: they’re threatening my train station. I have been waiting for a station stop in Enfield for 17 years. If this somehow messes that up, I am going to be incandescent with fury.
Maybe there will be a miracle. Maybe the godawful, greedy, and thoughtless tax bill oozing its way through Congress will rev up the economy so much that all our woes will be solved!
Ha. Well. Just in case that doesn’t happen, what do we do?
Fares on buses and trains will certainly rise, especially on the sad, captive commuter audience of Metro North. However, there’s a limit to how much fares can go up before the wealthy and middle classes get back in their cars and the poor are priced out. That’s dangerous: if transit is expensive and has low ridership, it disappears.
There may also be yet another raise in the gas tax, politically difficult though that might be. But raising the gas tax isn’t as useful as it was, thanks to low oil prices and ever more fuel-efficient cars.
Tolls are another possibility that we will hopefully see on our roads soon. Putting up tolls is going to be unpopular, and the more feeble-minded or cynical state legislators will make a lot of hay ranting against them. They’re necessary, though. Roads need upkeep. Transit, like buses and trains, have fares. Roads, on the other hand, are largely free to drive on once you factor out the cost of a car and gas. Tolls are a way of making up some of that money. Almost every northeastern state has tolls of some kind, especially on high-traffic roads like I-95. Washington has begun implementing congestion tolls, which charge more money for using the roads at peak times.
But really, we need to start thinking about transportation as an absolutely vital part of what government does. Good roads and reliable, cheap transit are an economic and social necessity, but until we understand that, and until we safeguard transportation funding, we’re just going to fall further and further behind everyone else.
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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