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Lamont was right, Connecticut needs tolls

Gov. Ned Lamont knows installing electronic tolls on Connecticut’s major highways is the sensible way to raise the revenues necessary to upgrade and maintain the state’s transportation system.

But Lamont has sent the signal that if the discussion about tolls is going to be renewed, someone else is going to have start it this time. You can hardly blame him.

The newly elected Democratic governor faced an embarrassing policy defeat in 2019 when he could not get support for his toll proposal despite his party holding solid majorities in the House and Senate. His plan for imposing tolls on all vehicles fell flat. He then retreated to a plan to just place a toll on large trucks — an idea he had campaigned on and one used in Rhode Island — but could not even get it to a vote because of opposition in the Senate.

Republicans were universally against tolls. No one broke ranks. Never mind that the idea of assessing a fee on someone who uses a service, rather than imposing a general tax, lines up with conservative values. Republicans proposed borrowing, with no new revenue source, leaving Connecticut residents and businesses to pay it back, and continuing to allow out-of-staters a free ride across the Connecticut interstates.

But while the toll opposition did not mesh with fiscal conservative values, it did make political sense, they thought, because who wants to pay a toll? They’re unpopular.

This universal Republican opposition placed enormous pressure on Democrats, who wanted at least a few Republicans joining hands with them before jumping off that cliff. Democrats could picture the election fliers arriving in mailboxes at election time blaming them for tolls.

Time has proved those Democrats feared too much and Lamont was right on the politics and the finances.

If opposing tolls was such a noble and politically popular position, certainly Republicans should have picked up seats in the recent election. Instead, they lost seats in the Senate and House, again. Would the outcome have been different if a toll plan had passed? Maybe a little. But maybe not.

And in its recent Fiscal Accountability Report released this month, using the drab but precise language of the accountant, the nonpartisan Office of Fiscal Analysis warned the Special Transportation Fund is headed for a serious crash.

The state is spending more on transportation than it is taking in through taxation. And it is only spending enough to maintain the system and provide modest upgrades, not making the major investment that is necessary for a 21st century transportation infrastructure.

“If unchanged, the cumulative balance of the STF is expected to be fully expended in FY 24,” states the report.

In other words, by 2024 the transportation fund, which funds Department of Transportation operations and pays the debt on borrowing for highway, bridge and rail improvements, will be broke.

The transportation fund is supported by fuel taxes and a share of the sales tax, which have plunged by a combined $175.3 million in the current fiscal year. It is no surprise that people are driving less. And many will continue driving less, and paying less in gas taxes, even after the pandemic, as the ability to work remotely has been demonstrated.

What will increase is truck traffic, as the digital marketplace continues to grow and more goods are delivered to our doors. But if those trucks gas up elsewhere, Connecticut will see no increased revenue from them, because Connecticut does not have tolls.

Lamont keeps telling reporters he won’t propose tolls again but will push legislators for their ideas on how to pay for transportation needs. Maybe someone will sheepishly raise his hand in the back of the caucus room. “How about tolls, governor?”

Tolls. Now there’s an interesting idea.

Paul Choiniere is the editorial page editor. 

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