Gov. Dannel P. Malloy announced his support for tolls on Connecticut highways this week as part of a package to raise revenue for our creaking transportation system. The usual suspects are angry, but they have no right to be. We’re out of other options.
A long time ago, Connecticut had tolls on I-95, which was then known as the Connecticut Turnpike. But then, in a ghastly and tragic accident, a tractor trailer slammed into four cars waiting at toll booths, and Gov. William A. O’Neill yanked the booths and the tolls from the highway so it wouldn’t happen again.
That was the 1980s. We had money then.
Every other state in the northeast corridor between Washington, D.C. and Boston kept their tolls, and the revenue they generate does a lot to help them maintain their infrastructure. Better yet, toll booths are a thing of the past; electronic tolls mean traffic doesn’t have to stop for the toll to be collected. It’s modern, efficient, and will raise plenty of money. What’s not to like?
Oh, right, you don’t want to pay them.
Listen. I’m getting tired of this argument. If you want to barrel down I-91 in your SUV, then someone’s got to pay for that road to be maintained. Someone needs to pay to keep the bridges from falling down, and run the plows, and fix the lights, and paint the lines, and everything else. The state needs to maintain trains, rails, buses, and ferries, too. That’s not cheap.
Unfortunately, right now our transportation system needs more than just maintenance, it needs a complete overhaul. It needs to be rethought, and in some cases, rebuilt. Our cities are poorly served by the highways that slice through their downtowns like impassable rivers of concrete and exhaust, choking the life out of neighborhoods. The ancient rail line along the shore from Greenwich to Stonington is one of the most-used in the country, but the route is slow and winding and many of its bridges are in desperate need of fixing.
All of that has an economic cost, not to mention a mental one. “The average commuter in Connecticut spends 41 hours per year in congestion,” said Gov. Malloy, and that is just going to get worse as the roads age and more cars are packed onto them.
Transportation is supposed to be a boon to economic growth. In Connecticut, though, it’s becoming a barrier.
We need to pay to fix that. The old way of doing that, through the gas tax, is getting more and more useless as engine efficiency rises and all-electric cars become more common. Where should the money come from, then?
We can’t count on help from Washington. The federal government has slowly been grinding to a halt over the past decade, becoming less and less functional until the idea of Washington actually doing something to fix the country’s problems seems laughable.
Yes, I know that the orange goblin who lives in the White House has an infrastructure plan, but first off, it’s a rotten plan that would depend too much on private funding that we’d never see, and, second, it seems like it’s not going to happen. The Republicans who just blew up the national debt to give their rich pals a tax cut are rolling their eyes heavenward and clutching their pearls at the idea of passing a bill without a way to pay for it.
So the feds are a dead end. Public-private partnerships sound great, but who wants to invest in a railway station or a highway overpass? The state has already taken on an unbearable load of debt through bonding, too, so we can’t do that.
That leaves us with tolls. I know you think it’s yet another burden on taxpayers, but think of it this way: tons of people pass through Connecticut from other states, and unless they stop for gas they are using our roads for free. We subsidize their travel. Tolls make things fairer.
And maybe it’s time to stop thinking of yourself as just a “taxpayer” anyway. We’re more than schlubs who fork money over to the government; we are citizens. This is our state, and its roads, rails, and bridges are our collective responsibility.
No one’s going to fix this for us. We have to do it ourselves. Put up the tolls, we are ready to help.
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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