Tolling only viable choice to pay for Connecticut's transportation needs

Connecticut needs to implement some form of electronic tolling on its highways. That is not a popular point to make. After all, who wants to add the cost of tolls to their driving transportation expenses?

But the state must find a way to pay to widen its congested highways, repair its aging infrastructure and continue to improve rail and other mass transit opportunities.

“Without transforming the way we fund our highways, we will be unable to pay for the large-scale construction and rehabilitation projects that our state needs to ensure continued safe travel while attracting businesses and growing our economy,” said Gov. Dannel P. Malloy this week.

He’s right.

Because it has no tolls, Connecticut can design a 21st century electronic tolling system from scratch, rather than having to retrofit an existing system as is the case in surrounding states that have long collected tolls. A modern system would use overhead gantries to assess a toll on passing vehicles, either by way of transponders in the vehicles or a photo of the registration plates for those failing to use a transponder. Gone are the days of needing toll booths.

A modern electronic toll system could utilize congestion pricing, charging a higher fee at hours of peak traffic to encourage those who can drive at off-peak hours to do so and save money.

The state Department of Transportation has issued preliminary estimates that tolls could yield up to $800 million annually, providing a critical influx of funding to the State Transportation Fund.

Continued dependence solely on the fuel tax will not get the job done. In 1997 the General Assembly cut the tax from 39 cents per gallon to 25 cents, leaving it unchanged since. The use of more fuel efficient cars and fully electric cars will continue to diminish the revenue raised through the gas tax.

Tolls have the advantage of generating revenues from the millions of trucks and cars that travel through Connecticut but never stop for a fill-up and so contribute nothing toward maintaining those highways.

So critical is the need to repair and upgrade the state’s transportation system, the nonpartisan Connecticut Commission on Fiscal Stability and Economic Growth concluded the state should both impose electronic tolling and raise the gas tax.

Taxpayers have a right to be concerned that revenue generated through tolls could be diverted for other needs, given that the legislature has raided the State Transportation Fund in the past. But if voters approve a constitutional amendment in November, as they should, it would create a lockbox to assure revenues raised for transportation are dedicated to that purpose.

Yet even as they watch surrounding states improve their tolling systems to pay for their highways, Connecticut lawmakers have remained unwilling to explore implementing them here for fear of the political price they may pay. To be fair, many politicians say their anti-toll stance lines up with the public’s opinion. But none is offering viable alternatives to raise the necessary funds.

While welcoming most any step that advances the discussion about tolling, the announcement by Malloy of a $10 million toll study generates mixed feelings.

On one level the study makes much sense. It will prepare various tolling alternatives, placement options and potential charges. It will explore ways to provide discounts or tax credits for Connecticut residents while ensuring out-of-state drivers pay their fair share for using state highways.

It would afford the next governor and legislature with options and answers to many of the questions that have been asked.

But a case can be made that Malloy is overreaching with his executive authority, achieving in his last months in office an initiative he could not obtain through a vote of the legislature.

And it could prove money wasted. The five Republicans who will compete in the Aug. 14 primary to run for governor are lockstep in their opposition to tolling. If a Republican wins, he could find a study on his desk he doesn’t want or one he will discontinue if it is not finished.

Which would be foolish.

More likely, the state will eventually have to turn to some form of tolling. When it does, the Malloy-ordered study will provide guidance, irrespective of the fact he strong-armed it into existence.

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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