Six months ago, if someone had asked me if tolling would appear on Connecticut highways at some point in the very near future, I would have said yes without hesitation. Now, though, I’m not so sure.
Sacred Heart University released a new poll this week covering a wide variety of subjects. What’s remarkable in the poll is how broad the support is for so many supposedly controversial issues. Large majorities of those polled favored increasing the minimum wage to $15, laws requiring affordable housing options in every single town, and increased background checks for firearms, for instance.
The implementation of a $15 minimum wage, which is supported by 70.6 percent of those polled, should theoretically be a slam dunk. My worry is that the business lobby will paint any wage increase as being harmful to the economy, and convince enough skittish legislators to oppose it that it goes nowhere.
The question about laws mandating affordable housing in every town was especially interesting, because it feels like outside of urban lawmakers and activists housing isn’t an issue that comes up much. But we absolutely do have a housing crisis in Connecticut, especially in Fairfield County where rents and house prices are out of reach for too many. Perhaps the fact that 67 percent of residents support affordable housing laws will cause the rest of the legislature sit up and take notice, especially lawmakers from the suburbs where opposition to affordable housing has historically been strongest.
Another thing that unites us is our worry that our children are unsafe in school. A whopping 82 percent of respondents felt that increased background checks would be an effective way of making schools safer, along with improved school infrastructure and mental health training for teachers. Arming teachers was less popular, supported by only 48.8 percent. Whether the legislature has any appetite for more gun control measures, though, is anyone’s guess.
Unfortunately for Gov. Ned Lamont and Democrats in the legislature, another thing Connecticut residents largely agree on is that they don’t want tolls to be put up on the highways. Fifty-nine percent of those polled opposed tolling, compared with only 34.7 percent who favored it.
If I were a Democratic lawmaker from a suburban district I’d be very worried about that number. The vociferousness of the opposition to tolls seems to have caught the governor and legislative leaders by surprise, and right now gleeful Republicans are pressuring Democrats on tolls on all fronts. For once, Republicans have lucked into an issue passionately backed by a majority, and they’re going to ride that pony for as long as they can.
So are the votes for tolls still there? If nothing changes it’s going to be very hard for Democrats in marginal districts to vote yes. It will take skillful leadership in order for tolls to pass, something that has been in short supply in Hartford lately.
All hope is not yet lost, though. Tolls could still happen — if supporters can make a good case for how the money will be used.
In November of 2018 another Sacred Heart poll asked residents if they thought tolls on out-of-state drivers, trucks, and Connecticut residents would be “an effective way to help pay for highway improvements to relieve congestion.” An estimated 56.2 percent either strongly or somewhat agreed.
And in the poll just released, 36.2 percent said that they’d be more likely to support tolls if they were assured that the money would go into the transportation “lockbox,” where it could only be spent on transportation.
That’s how you convince the public that tolls are necessary — link them to something tangible. Imagine if we could say that tolls would pay for specific things, like a better interchange between I-84 and I-91, train stations in more towns on the Hartford Line, more lanes on I-95 in New London County, or improvements to Metro-North rail service.
Gov. Lamont seems to have noticed. He released a statement Monday night lauding the piece of the poll saying that residents were more likely to support tolls once they learned that the money would be spent on transportation. But he needs to do a better job of getting us there.
Right now tolls seem like just another tax, another burden. If our leaders can strongly link tolls to improvements in transportation everyone knows we need, then they will have more success. I really hope they’re up to the challenge.
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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