The Connecticut Department of Transportation released a study last week evaluating tolling options for the state, and just like that whatever nice, mellow post-election feelings we were having turned back into anger, frustration, and a mounting desire to move somewhere else.
Who can really blame us? The study was quite bullish on how much money the state could make from tolls — up to $1 billion per year — but it wasn’t good news for anyone who spends any amount of time on Connecticut’s roads. A map showed toll gantries set up on every expressway in the state, including Route 8, Route 9, and Route 2. Interstate 95 had 17 of them, Interstate 84 had 15. Even little bitty interstates like 291 and 691 had one each. Nobody’s commute would be unaffected. For instance, there would be five separate toll-collecting gantries between Hartford and Waterbury. As if driving to Waterbury wasn’t painful enough.
The study also modeled the cost of driving to familiar destinations. From New Haven to Hartford would be anywhere from $1.67 to $2.09 per trip, depending on the time of day (“peak” times would be more expensive). That adds up fast: $16.70 to $20.90 for a work week of round trips, and, based on the national average of 46.8 weeks worked yearly, $781.56 to $978.12 per year.
Here’s where we rant about how this would never have happened if the state could manage its money, state pensions are basically theft, I’m moving to Guam, yadda yadda yadda. The one blessing of having to drive on the lousy highways in this state was that they were free, and now we can’t even have that.
And it’s not like anyone trusts the state to spend the money wisely. The income tax was supposed to solve our fiscal problems, but the government made a series of disastrous decisions in the 1990s and 2000s that left us with a decade of massive deficits when the economy crashed in 2008. We want to trust toll money to these people?
However, we’ve been so busy waving pitchforks and torches that we didn’t notice the rest of the study, which was oddly hopeful. The upshot is that we’d still pay less money for tolls than in other states, and if we do use the money from tolls in smart ways, it will be a lot easier to get around this state.
One of the many reasons our roads are so miserable to drive on is that they’re badly in need of repair. Money from tolls would go toward actually fixing them, not just patching them, so that traffic can move more freely.
Another reason the highways are parking lots of doom is that they were designed by well-meaning buffoons in the 1950s and 1960s who thought slapping a four-lane divided expressway onto a narrow bridge through the middle of a city was a great idea. Not only was this destructive to the cities, but it made for narrower lanes, tighter turns and little space to improve. Pretty much all of I-95 in Fairfield County is like this, as is I-84 through Hartford and Waterbury. Money from tolls would allow us to actually fix these problems.
Better, the idea of having higher tolls for “peak” times would discourage people who didn’t need to be on the highways from clogging them up. This is called “congestion pricing,” and it can work very well to both alleviate traffic jams and to encourage people to make the switch to public transit. Money from tolls could help make the transit systems that do exist more robust, more cost-effective, and more extensive.
In practice that would mean more trains on Metro-North, Shore Line East, and the Hartford Line; more frequent bus service in all parts of the state; and new bus and rail lines where they are needed most. If we have transit that goes where we need to go when we need to go there, people will use it.
By 2040, then, the money collected from tolls could make our roads less crowded, but we’d also have such good public transit that we wouldn’t be stuck driving everywhere, all the time.
I’m not looking forward to paying tolls. But if I think about them as being a down payment on a better future, it’s not so bad. Now all we have to do is make sure the state doesn’t blow this opportunity like it has so many others.
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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