Last week, as the children who left Connecticut for bright cities all across the country started migrating like depressed swallows back home to their families’ tables, Gov. Ned Lamont expressed his support for legislative Democrats’ truck-only tolls proposal on our highways.
And so here we are, back at the beginning.
Lamont had campaigned on the improbable idea of only tolling trucks during the campaign last year. Then, almost exactly a year ago, the Department of Transportation ruined everyone’s post-election chill with a study outlining how the state could raise enough cash to fix our broken transportation system—not with truck-only tolls, but by tolling passenger cars. The study came with a map that showed toll gantries on every major highway, and a handy calculator to figure out just how much you’d be expected to drop to get from Danbury to Hartford.
Everyone exploded in rage. Lamont, who had nothing to do with the study, decided to pour rocket fuel on the fire it had caused by clumsily performing an about-face on tolls only a few weeks into his governorship and embracing passenger car tolls. Then, when the legislature couldn’t muster up the votes to pass tolls during the regular session, Lamont regrouped and eventually rolled out the CT2030 plan. CT2030 had far fewer tolls located in specific project areas, but not even that flew with vulnerable Democrats in whose districts toll gantries would be erected. Tolls on passenger cars were shelved again.
That left Lamont with a choice between an unappealing Republican plan that would borrow a lot of money and Democrats’ newfound embrace of, you guessed it, truck-only tolls.
The circle is complete. What exactly was the point of the last year, anyway? Lamont could have stuck with truck-only tolls from the beginning, and saved himself and everyone else a lot of grief.
Truck-only tolls don’t sit right with me. They didn’t seem like a real solution back during the campaign, and they still aren’t. After all, Lamont’s major rationale for dropping the trucks-only idea was that it wouldn’t raise enough money. That hasn’t changed. The other rationale was that that truck tolls may not be entirely legal. The American Trucking Associations is currently suing the state of Rhode Island, which approved truck-only tolls back in 2016 and is just now bringing their system online. Their argument is that the tolls violate the Commerce Clause of the Constitution, and you can bet Connecticut will be slapped with a similar lawsuit should we move forward.
What has changed is the date. As the 2020 elections near, Democratic lawmakers who were never thrilled about having to defend tolls on passenger cars in the first place are walking away.
How small of them.
Tolling trucks is the easy way out. Like the Republican plan, which steals from the Rainy Day Fund and shatters the illusion of Republicans as the party of fiscal responsibility by borrowing lots of money through bonding, it’s a way to raise money without making anyone except transportation companies mad.
And honestly, the truckers are right to complain. Trucking companies already have tons of fees they have to pay. Tolls will make transportation of goods more expensive, and that will lead to price increases on everything we buy. In short, we’ll be paying the tolls indirectly—except this time they’ll be levied on everyone, not just road users.
But that’s fine, because voters will barely notice. Once again, our politicians can avoid having to make hard decisions, but we’ll have missed an opportunity to raise the money we need. What vital projects will we scrap because of this retreat from responsibility? A train station? A bridge? A redesign of a highway exit? Something else?
Our transportation system isn’t something we should be playing with. It matters. Without a world-class transportation system our future is a lot dimmer. More of our children will leave to find opportunity elsewhere, coming home only for Thanksgiving. They’ll sigh in traffic on their way back from the airport, wishing they were on a train instead, and think, this is why I left.
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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