OPINION: Are tolls the answer for Connecticut?

OPINION: Are tolls the answer for Connecticut?

As the Connecticut General Assembly heads into the final weeks of the 2018 legislative session, highway tolls will be one of the most controversial and talked about topics.

■Do we need tolls?■What are the different toll options?■Where would they be located?■How much will it cost Connecticut motorists?■ Will tolls generate a windfall of money from out-of-state motorists?

These are a few of the questions that must be answered before we decide what to do.

We are told we need tolls because of a forecasted deficit in the Special Transportation Fund (STF). Toll advocates say that declining gas tax collections caused by declining gas consumption are one reason we need tolls. Another factor causing the projected revenue shortfall is an enormous surge in spending on transportation. Let’s look at these two factors.

First, the assumption that fuel consumption is declining is false. Since 2013, motor fuel consumption in Connecticut is up 65 million gallons per year. What may drive consumption down will be higher gas prices. But if that happens, Connecticut has “insurance” in the form of the Petroleum Gross Receipts Tax (Connecticut’s second gas tax) which is based on the price of gas. The PGRT peaked four years ago when gas prices spiked to about $4/gallon. Prices are heading upward again, and PGRT taxes are trending upwards, but consumption is yet to decline.

The second factor causing the forecasted STF deficit is a spectacular increase in spending proposed by Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, who has put forward a $100 billion transportation spending plan. This is more than triple the largest annual spending before Malloy became governor. No one disputes that we have catch-up work to do on our transportation systems, but a 330 percent increase every year for the next 30 years is unbelievable.

Perhaps we need to spend above normal for seven or eight years to compensate for the neglect during Malloy’s eight years, but spending on the scale proposed by the governor cannot be sustained for 30 years. No one in the legislature has vetted the $100 billion plan, but it continues to drive the demand for tolls. Before the Legislature decides about tolls, it should seriously scrutinize the governor’s gigantic spending plan. Toll proponents want to “spend first; and ask questions later.” Now is the time to ask questions — and get answers — before we commit to the largest spending plan ever in Connecticut history!

It is clear the two underlying assumptions driving the call for tolls are untrue, unrealistic and unvetted. But what if we decide to implement tolls?

In the last three years, three studies about potential tolls in Connecticut have been developed by consultants for the DOT. Some of the key findings are:

■To maximize toll revenues, Connecticut will erect 121 toll gantries on all interstate highways and limited access highways.■Toll costs would range from 10 to 20 cents per mile.■“Congestion pricing” must be implemented. The consultants recommend a 40 percent increased toll rate during commuting hours compared to off-peak hours.■Motorists without a transponder would pay a 50 percent premium above the proposed toll rates.■ Capital costs to install the tolls are projected to be $635 million.■ Consultants say 25 percent of the motorists paying tolls would be out-of-state motorists. But if Connecticut motorists are the rush hour commuters forced to pay a hefty “congestion pricing” premium, they will bear a disproportionate share of the tolls compared to out-of-state motorists who will avoid the rush hour traffic. This could cause toll revenues from out-of-state motorists to be less than 20 percent of tolls collected.■A round trip from New Haven to the New York state line may cost from $12 to $19.20 per day at rush hour (the highest rate proposed by consultants). This means it would cost from $3,000 per year to more than $5,000 per year to commute on I-95 or the Merritt Parkway from New Haven to the New York border.■ A special Transportation Authority made of unelected individuals would make decisions about toll rates and other important issues is included in some toll legislation.

The Legislature already has enacted legislation that will add at least $500 million of revenues towards our transportation system. The PGRT will be 100 percent dedicated towards transportation. Sales tax revenues will be added, as well as new cars sales taxes. Even with these additional revenues, transportation funding may need a boost. But if we need more revenues for higher transportation spending for seven or eight years, why would we spend $635 million on a toll system that will be permanent?

Let’s think before we spend taxpayers’ money. Let’s ask questions and get satisfactory answers now, not later.

Let’s have a robust debate about tolls before we commit to the largest spending ever undertaken by the State of Connecticut.

Len Suzio represents the 13th Senate District — Cheshire, Meriden, Middlefield, Middletown and Rockfall.  He can be reached at 800-842-1421. On the web: www.SenatorSuzio.com.


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