This week, this blessed week, may see the end of a toll saga that feels like it’s lasted for about a decade. I for one am more than ready to never talk about them again. So please, members of the Connecticut General Assembly: do not screw this up.
There is, sadly, plenty of room for them to screw this up. The vote could happen as early as Tuesday or Wednesday, but just last week legislators from Waterbury were expressing concern that there were too many truck-only toll gantries proposed for their region. Since the whole idea was to put these truck-only tolls on bridges that needed repair, and have the proceeds go toward funding construction there, then logically wouldn’t it appear instead that the Waterbury area would be getting the most help?
If we were using logic, though, the legislature would have approved passenger car tolls last year. This whole prolonged battle over tolling on the state’s highways morphed almost immediately from a dollars-and-cents discussion of how to fund badly needed transportation upgrades into a deeply emotional proxy for all the ways in which people are fed up with Connecticut.
And yes, I get that! An awful lot of people feel like the state doesn’t see or care about them. From their perspective the government in Hartford just wants to take more and more money to pay for things that a lot of people don’t experience firsthand, such as CTFastrak, huge incentives for big companies to stay in the state, or pensions for state workers.
From that perspective, tolls feel like the last straw. It’s just One More Thing, and it feels like a slap in the face.
The way tolls were presented to the public didn’t help. The rollout was started in November of 2018 with a terrifying map showing passenger car toll gantries every couple of miles on major highways. Gov. Ned Lamont, fresh off the high of his inauguration, then performed a clumsy about-face and went from supporting truck-only tolls to passenger car tolls.
It didn’t go well! If anything, it proved to a lot of folks that the politicians running the state were liars who didn’t care about them.
That’s where the No Tolls movement that helped shut down the original bill on tolls last year and has forced the governor to scurry back to truck-only tolls came from. It’s the product of a decade of fiscal crisis, economic stagnation, inept governance, and out-migration.
And I get that. But our transportation system is still falling apart, and we need to fix and improve it. This is something we can’t ignore.
Is this a flawed plan? Absolutely! Tolls on trucks are a failure of the legislature to do what is necessary. They are only doing what they think is palatable to angry constituents. They punish an industry that pays tons of fees already, and the extra costs will be passed on to consumers.
The transportation plan, CT2030, also has its flaws. It’s too car-centric, for one, and it does a poor job of anticipating the transportation needs of the future. CT2030 was a chance to redesign rail and bus systems to better serve everyone – it largely has fallen short of that goal.
But this is the moment when something becomes better than nothing. Hopefully the legislature will realize that and vote.
After it’s all said and done, though, maybe they can take away a couple of lessons from this long, bitter fight.
First, the rollout for a big plan like this counts. When Gov. Lamont hit the reset button and rolled out CT2030, it was much better done than his initial fumbling of the passenger car tolls issue. By then, though, it was too late and the damage was done.
Second, the Democratic leadership in the Capitol needs to get a better read for the public mood. Tolls were a disaster because the governor thought that explaining the reasoning behind changing a core campaign promise in an op-ed would convince people. It didn’t.
Hopefully CT2030, with tolls on trucks, passes this week. Hopefully, the House and Senate can both figure this out and muster enough votes to do at least some of what’s necessary.
Then we can get on to whatever comes next. Please?
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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