When it comes to tolls on the roads, Connecticut has moved from denial (“It’ll just affect out-of-state trucks! Honest!”) through some pretty righteous anger, and well into bargaining territory.
Actually, scratch that, I think we’re back at denial. This could take a while.
Now that opponents have begun to realize that cutting spending is impossible when faced with the state’s budget realities, and that the Republicans’ “Prioritize Progress” plan to borrow our way out of this is magical thinking at best, a new line of attack has emerged. This time, the whole rationale for putting up tolls is suspect. There is in fact no funding crisis for transportation at all, because gas tax revenues are rising!
I saw this notion pop up in a few places, most notably in an op-ed in the Hartford Courant by former Republican state Sen. Len Suzio of Meriden. Suzio writes that, instead of gas tax revenue drying up as toll advocates have claimed, they are in fact increasing:
In fiscal year 2005, the state collected about $650 million in gas taxes (gasoline, diesel, Petroleum Gross Receipts, and special motor fuels tax); by 2018, the total was $822 million. Total gas taxes revenue in 2018 was nearly $85 million more than the previous year. Clearly, the only thing disappearing is honesty in public policy discussion.
This seemed like one of those too-good-to-be-true things, so I investigated. Suzio is correct that revenue relating to gas taxes has increased since 2005, but beyond that it gets a lot murkier.
What Suzio is talking about when he’s talking about “gas taxes” are in fact several different taxes that are often lumped together. Not all of them are even taxes on gasoline! The Motor Fuels Tax is the standard amount per gallon that we pay at the pump. The Petroleum Products Gross Earnings Tax (known as PGET or the gross receipts tax) is a tax on companies that distribute petroleum products, like gasoline. So yes, your gasoline is taxed twice.
Apart from that, Suzio mentions the Special Fuels Tax, which is a tax on fuels like diesel. A tax that he doesn’t mention but appears to have included in his calculation for the amount of gas tax revenue the state brought in during 2017-18 is the Motor Carrier Road Tax, which mainly applies to truck and transport companies and does, in fact, tax fuel.
So let’s take a look at the revenue from all four of these taxes together over time. In 2005, if we include the Motor Carrier Road Tax, the state brought in about $663 million. That jumped up to $760 million the next year due to a tax increase, and has fluctuated between there and a high point of $924 million (in 2013) ever since.
The jump of $85 million from 2017 to 2018 was significant. But so too was the $70 fall from 2013 to 2014, or the fall of $86 million from 2014 to 2015. In short, gas tax revenues fluctuate wildly, and can be vastly different from one year to the next. The overall trend line is essentially flat. Taking one year out of context like former Sen. Suzio has done doesn’t change that fact, and neither does the false narrative on the other side that gas tax revenues are in free fall. The truth, that these revenues fluctuate and are essentially stagnant, is less satisfying for both sides.
So why do we need tolls, then, if we’re not losing gas tax revenue?
The short answer is that we need the money gas taxes simply can’t bring in. The Department of Transportation costs over $2 billion a year to run, and that number has been rising steadily.
We’ve also been deferring critical infrastructure projects for decades because we haven’t had the money. This has led to a huge backlog of vital repairs and replacements that desperately need to get done, and the state as of this moment has no way to pay for those outside of borrowing money. As a long-term solution, that is not a good idea.
Most of the money the DOT spends goes toward maintaining the state’s road and highway network. It makes sense that the people who use the roads should fund them, and that means you and I in our cars. It also means everyone who uses I-84 and I-95 to get from New York to Boston.
So, no, we can’t avoid tolls by pointing to the gas tax. Sorry. Are we ready to move on to bargaining, depression, and then acceptance yet?
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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