Why tolls are best option for Connecticut

The Connecticut legislature should do the right but politically difficult thing and move forward with a plan to construct a tolling system on its state highways, creating a reliable and fair revenue source to repair and improve its transportation system.

Providing quality transportation is critically important to the state’s future economic prospects. Choked highways, a lack of reliable mass transportation options between its larger cities and the failure to realize the full potential of its major ports continue to put Connecticut at a great economic disadvantage.

That must change. Using a sensible tolling system to tap revenues from the millions of out-of-state vehicles that traverse our state could play a major role.

And when the Department of Transportation and the administration of Gov. Ned Lamont rolled out a tentative tolling plan this week there was good news for eastern Connecticut — no tolls on Interstate 395.

Kevin Nursick, a spokesman for the DOT, said when the agency looked to reduce the number of tolling gantries from the 80-plus contained in a preliminary plan, a number Lamont saw as excessive, it opted to remove lower-volume highways from the proposal, including leaving tolls off the north-south 395 that serves our region.

Instead the Lamont administration, if it wins legislative approval, would install 53 electronic tolling gantries spaced at six miles on the Merritt Parkway and Interstates 84, 91 and 95, much heavier traveled highways. Drivers on those roads would be assessed an average fee of 4.4 cents per mile, the same as the Mass Pike but lower than New York and New Jersey tolls.

Pending federal approval, Connecticut drivers would receive a discount of 30 percent or more and drivers could get lower toll rates by traveling at off-peak hours, an attempt to encourage those with other options to avoid rush-hour travel. Changing the traveling habits of a relatively low percentage of drivers can pay big dividends in reducing congestion.

The plan would raise an estimated $800 million annually for transportation, with the recently approved state constitutional amendment assuring that money is not diverted for other purposes. It would be added to the nearly $800 million the state is currently raising largely through the gas tax, but which is not enough to meet the state’s dire transportation needs.

Most significantly, 40 percent or more of the toll revenue would come from out-of-state drivers, many who pass through the state without ever gassing up their vehicles, avoiding the gas tax.

The state would need to raise the gasoline tax by 53 cents a gallon to raise the revenue foreseen under the toll plan, and then keep raising it. As fuel efficiency improves, and the number of hybrid and electrical vehicles grow, the gas tax will provide diminishing returns. Given transportation construction demands, the state’s Special Transportation Fund is projected to go broke by 2024.

Republican leaders, with their party in the minority in the House and Senate, propose as an alternative their “Prioritize Progress” plan, which would cap bonding for public school, university and other capital projects and borrow instead for transportation, producing $1.4 billion in annual borrowing.

But that approach would put this deeply indebted state more in debt, further raise fixed costs to repay the bonds, and fail to tap out-of-state drivers for more revenue. Lamont has the better approach in calling for Connecticut to go on a “debt diet.” The governor wants to borrow less, not borrow for something different — transportation. Assessing tolls on those who use the roads, rather than assessing all taxpayers, is the better option to pay for transportation needs.

Connecticut will have to do some substantial borrowing in the short term, however, because a toll system would not become active until about 2023.

Lamont is expending substantial political capital in pushing for tolls. They are unpopular. No one wants them. But Connecticut needs them.

This will fall to Democratic lawmakers holding ranks. Republicans appear lockstep in opposition. That is the politically expedient course. We urge local Republican lawmakers to break from the pack, yet we understand the political calculus to let Democrats own this.

For generations, Connecticut legislatures and governors failed to adequately save to meet state pension obligations. They failed to make the tough decisions to maintain and improve transportation.

This time, do the right thing. Ignore the next election and instead focus on providing the means to build a transportation and economic foundation for future generations. Pass a toll plan.

The Day editorial board meets regularly with political, business and community leaders and convenes weekly to formulate editorial viewpoints. It is composed of President and Publisher Tim Dwyer, Editorial Page Editor Paul Choiniere, Managing Editor Tim Cotter, Staff Writer Julia Bergman and retired deputy managing editor Lisa McGinley. However, only the publisher and editorial page editor are responsible for developing the editorial opinions. The board operates independently from the Day newsroom.

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