Reasonable plan to meet desperate transportation needs

Connecticut needs to invest in its transportation systems. Bridges and roads must be maintained. Danger spots such as the narrow stretch of Interstate 95 through Old Lyme and East Lyme, with its confluence of exits and on-ramps, need reconstruction. Commuter rail should be expanded in our region. Rail crossings need safety improvements. The state’s commercial ports need improved infrastructure to achieve their economic potential. To improve the vibrancy of our communities, safe trails for bikers and pedestrians should be expanded.

The list is long. The money, however, is short.

On Jan. 10, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy and his transportation commissioner, James Redeker, released a list of 400 transportation projects, with a collective price tag of $4.3 billion, that will have to be suspended over the next five years unless adequate funding is provided. The Special Transportation Fund will reach insolvency in a little over two years if nothing changes, leaving it unable to meet debt service obligations tied to past and ongoing projects.

The legislature must introduce tolls to Connecticut’s highways to generate the revenues necessary to support transportation.

Malloy announced Wednesday that he is not only asking for the legislature to establish electronic tolling, but also hike the gasoline tax. That is asking a lot. But the needs are great and have been delayed too long. The increase Malloy proposes would essentially allow the state to tread water when it comes to revenue produced by the gas tax.

Malloy, who is not seeking re-election, might be the right person to push such an unpopular but needed proposal. The question is whether lawmakers, many of whom will be seeking re-election in November, can find the political nerve to act.

By acting now, Connecticut could position itself to take advantage of any infrastructure plan that emerges from Washington. Investing in the nation’s infrastructure needs appears to be one thing the two parties may be able to agree on. But getting Washington aid will depend on Connecticut providing matching funds.

Connecticut will find itself at a great disadvantage in competing for businesses if it does not invest in a modern transportation system.

Concerning tolls, the state has the advantage of installing technology that other states implemented in a series of upgrades. As is now the case in Massachusetts, a Connecticut system would be fully digital with no collection booths and fees assessed through transponders in motor vehicles or, for those without an electronic pass, by recording and billing by way of license plate imaging.

The densely developed state has the disadvantage of highways with multiple exits, providing greater temptation for drivers to maneuver around tolls. It will be up to Department of Transportation engineers to design a workable system.

Quite possible is congestion pricing — paying a higher toll when traffic is heavy — an approach that can encourage drivers to travel during non-peak hours if possible, opt for mass transit, or work from home.

While border tolls might be politically popular, they would put federal highway funding at risk, due to rules established by Congress.

Unlike relying strictly on a gas tax, tolls generate revenue from all those using the highways. No longer could out-of-state drivers travel through the state on its highways and contribute nothing to maintaining its roads.

Malloy and Redeker provided estimates, which given the scant information are rougher than even the worst Connecticut roads, that tolls could produce $600 million to $800 million annually, with out-of-state motorists paying 30 percent of the fees.

On the gas tax side, Malloy recommends boosting the per-gallon gasoline tax from 25 cents to 32 cents in four steps, the full increase implemented by July 2021. Given expected improvements in motor vehicle performance and fuel efficiency, which will mean drivers buying less gas, revenues from the gas tax will drop without an increase.

Making these proposals more palatable is the opportunity voters will have in November to approve a state constitutional amendment prohibiting toll and gas-tax revenues from being diverted for needs other than transportation. On its editorial pages, this newspaper has made its support for increased transportation fees contingent on creation of such a “lockbox.”

No one likes paying tolls or taxes. But most people welcome safe and reliable transportation systems. They cost money. The governor’s proposal lays out a reasonable approach to provide it.

The editorial board is composed of the publisher and four journalists of varied editing and reporting backgrounds. The board's discussions and information gained from its meetings with political, civic, and business leaders drive the institutional voice of The Day, as expressed in its editorials. The editorial department operates separately from the newsroom.


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