OPINION: A way out of Connecticut’s toll stalemate

OPINION: A way out of Connecticut’s toll stalemate

Tolls continue to be one of the hot topics in Connecticut, and I wish to weigh in.  On our trip, we saw that almost every nation with four-lane, limited-access roads assesses tolls on at least some of them. We saw this ourselves in South Africa, Malaysia, Singapore, Hong Kong, China, Japan, and Australia.  In the Geography of Toll Roads article in Wikipedia, forty-seven countries are listed.

 I can certainly appreciate some of the current opposition.  The state legislature’s habit of balancing the state budget by going back on their word to protect the highway trust fund certainly would understandably make people cynically consider tolls as an end run around more direct taxation. 

 But our roads are in an embarrassing, if not exactly dangerous (yet) state of disrepair.  Our bridges over the interstates look horrible. Suggestion: if we aren’t going to paint the bridges that carry traffic over our interstate highways, at least when we do, perhaps the paint color should be “rust brown.” 

On the other hand, I have to say that the work done in New Haven on the I-91/I-95 interchange was a magnificent improvement, done with minimal disruption.  But we have gazillions of dollars more work ahead of us, as the daily commuter nightmare on I-84 in Waterbury will attest, for instance.

Our U.S. Senators and Representatives, even during the Obama administration, have been absolutely no help in securing appropriate levels of federal transportation funds.  Our new CTRail project is a perfect case in point.  At the beginning of the project, we were fed the pipe dream that the feds would contribute at least $400 million to its construction.  In the end, Connecticut had to take on most of that debt.  Of course, that didn’t stop Connecticut’s U.S. Senator Richard Blumenthal from showing up for the cameras on opening day.  He should have hid his face in shame for his lack of influence.  Yeah, that’ll happen.

I read with interest state Senator Len Fasano’s column regarding the Republican plan to finance highway construction and maintenance, and I will confess that I have not read the proposal itself.  But it still seems to boil down to the taxpayers of Connecticut borrowing all the money.  If I read this column carefully, part of the resistance to the Republican plan probably has to do with the discipline that that plan would force on the state to cut borrowing elsewhere so that the net increase is close to zero.  At least I hope that’s the case.

Adding to Republican (and my own) skepticism were some of the details as to where tolls would be placed.  If I’m not mistaken, plans include assessing a toll on I-91 between Wallingford and New Haven, among other places.  Really?  So we would begin to pay a toll on a road that has been in existence for fifty years without one?  Now that is a tax.

There has to be a way out of this stalemate.  The Democrat answer is to put tolls all over the state.  Hmmm.  That looks like a tax masquerading as a user fee.  The Republican answer is: borrow the money.  That puts Connecticut residents on the hook for the whole thing.

 Here is my suggestion: establish an independent authority vested with the responsibility to maintain and improve the Merritt Parkway, Wilbur Cross Parkway and I-95, similar to the New Jersey Turnpike Authority.  These roads had tolls on them for decades, and are three of the busiest east-west routes in the state, carrying the bulk of the out-of-state traffic that ought to be contributing to their upkeep and improvement.  The tolls collected by this authority would bypass the legislature completely, and this agency would be solely responsible for those roads, the goal being to make it impossible for the state to siphon off those funds to cover other expenses.

 Or how about this?  Lease the roads to a private entity …  [Okay, pick up all the state DOT employees off the floor who just fainted at the thought].  This is not a new concept.  Indiana leased their Indiana Toll Road in 2006 for $3.8 billion plus a promised $600 million in improvements.  There is an oversight board, and the terms of the lease as to maintenance standards are quite strict.  Despite financial difficulties encountered by the original lessee, a new one was found that has taken over.  This outside-the-box idea is working.

 Some way has to be found to break this stalemate.  Sequestering the toll money is a must if Republican distrust is ever to be overcome.  The Dems have to give up the idea of tolls every ten miles to soak Connecticut drivers. We have to bring out-of-state drivers into the mix in our small “pass-through” state to pay for using these three roads.  Much of the world has found their solution.  Surely we can ours.             

Stephen Knight is a former Wallingford town councilor.


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