Not since the administration of John Rowland — when utterances like “shake down” and “hot tub” were the order of the day — has Connecticut’s political landscape been so dominated by one word.
It seems that everywhere one looks for news, it’s tolls, tolls, and more tolls. And it’s been depressing to watch Gov. Ned Lamont flail about in search of a plan that will establish highway and bridge tolls to fund his otherwise laudable transportation vision.
As others have repeatedly emphasized, there is an enormous trust deficit among voters and taxpayers: Lamont campaigned on a promise to tax only large out-of-state trucks and after taking office reversed course in a Saturday morning newspaper op-ed. Instead, the governor proposed a sweeping plan with dozens of tolling gantries that would hit virtually everyone in the state. That’s all on Lamont, plain and simple.
It is not Lamont’s fault, however, that in the past the special transportation fund has been raided regularly in order to pay for non-transportation-related expenses. Hardly anyone trusts that Lamont and the current legislature will do any different, so what’s the point of implementing tolls if much of the revenues will just disappear into the no-man’s land called the general fund?
The other problem Lamont faces is simply political. He cannot even get the leadership of his own party in the General Assembly to support his latest $21-billion transportation plan if it includes tolls. I’m guessing Senate President Marty Looney and Majority Leader Bob Duff have done the math. They realize members of their own party, if they vote for tolls, could go down to defeat and perhaps imperil the Democratic majority in the upper chamber. Plus, tolls really go against their party’s stated opposition to regressive taxes — in this case, a tolling scheme that would charge a hedge fund manager in a Hummer the same as a WalMart greeter behind the wheel of a rusty pick-up.
Consider the irony: Connecticut is a blue state whose taxpayers don’t trust the Democrats who run the government. Bob Stefanowski is smiling yet again — and he doesn’t even need to plan his line of attack for 2022. If, as the spectacle of last week in Washington suggests, Donald Trump is writing his own articles of impeachment, so too is Lamont scripting Bob’s campaign.
An amusing twist to the tolls story involves a quirk of geography. Interstate 684, which connects northern Westchester County with White Plains, N.Y., passes through a tiny portion of the northwest corner of the lower Fairfield County panhandle.
Near the Westchester County Airport, I-684 crosses into Greenwich for a total of 1.3 miles between exits 2 and 3. I’ve driven through it probably 100 times. If you blink twice, you probably wouldn’t notice the signs telling you your vehicle has passed into the Nutmeg State, to say nothing of the westernmost sliver of land in New England.
Lamont had planned to erect a tolling gantry that would charge each vehicle 50 cents to drive through the short Connecticut section. This caused an uproar in the state of New York, whose Department of Transportation handles routine maintenance and plowing on that brief stretch of federal highway and is reimbursed by Connecticut.
“Lamont says the tiny toll road could fill state coffers to the tune of $15 million a year, with more than $350,000 going to Greenwich, where the governor has a $6.5 million mansion,” snarked the Westchester Journal News.
This caused something of an uproar in Albany, where one Democratic New York State assemblyman branded Lamont’s move “an outrageous money grab.” For once, I agree with a blustering politician. That’s nothing short of a miracle.
Lamont’s predicament is not exactly unheard of. In this era of struggling newspapers, for example, we are reminded that when the paper is putting out a lousy product, it’s an easy decision to cancel your subscription. But when the quality of the paper improves — even dramatically — it’s tough to win back those readers.
The same goes for trust. Pissing it away is effortless but regaining it is a herculean task. Perhaps, dare I say, a toll bridge too far?
Contributing op-ed columnist Terry Cowgill lives in Lakeville, blogs at CTDevilsAdvocate.com and is managing editor of The Berkshire Edge in Great Barrington, Mass. Follow him on Twitter @terrycowgill or email him at email@example.com.
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