Tolls & taxes, part 1: Looking back

(Note: Part 2 will appear in tomorrow’s edition.)

You can’t get there from here. That’s pretty much what a certain Army officer concluded after taking part in the Transcontinental Motor Convoy, a 3,251-mile trek from Washington, D.C., to San Francisco. It took 62 days — at an average speed of 2.2 mph. Trucks bogged down in dust, mud and quicksand along the primitive roads of the time. Wooden bridges collapsed under the weight. There were 21 casualties. This was in 1919, right after World War I.

During World War II, that same officer saw how quickly and efficiently Germany’s extensive system of modern highways allowed Hitler to move his troops around the country. The U.S. had nothing like it, and Gen Dwight D. Eisenhower would remember both of those lessons later, when, as president, he signed the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956, kicking off the construction of our Interstate highway system.

Those 46,876 miles of limited-access, multiple-lane highway weren’t built in a day; parts of the system date back to the 1940s and ’50s, and plans had been on the table for decades before that. But much of the system was completed or updated during the 1960s and ’70s. Before that, most of this state was served only by old-fashioned, two-lane roads; hard as it is to imagine now, when President Kennedy took office there were no modern highways linking all of the state’s major cities.

We did have the Merritt Parkway (named for former U.S. Rep. Schuyler Merritt and completed in 1940), which stretches 37 miles from the New York state line at Greenwich to the Housatonic River at Stratford; the Wilbur Cross Parkway (named for former Gov. Wilbur Lucius Cross and completed in 1941), which hooks up with the Merritt at Stratford and runs 29 miles to the Meriden-Berlin line; and the infamous Berlin Turnpike (11 miles that were not officially called that until 2002, but legendarily take the motorist past 1,000 motel rooms to the Wethersfield-Hartford line, where Maple Avenue starts.)

The Berlin pike has no real starting or completion date; it roughly follows a route established in 1797 and was upgraded a number of times, most notably in the 1940s, when it was widened to four lanes and the median was added. But, with almost unlimited access, there was no way to collect tolls. The parkways, however, were toll roads from the start; the toll booths weren’t removed until the 1980s, after a horrible accident at the Stratford toll plaza on the Connecticut Turnpike, I-95.

The Connecticut pike, too, has no real starting date; its 111 miles were built or improved in dribs and drabs over many years, as traffic on the old Boston Post Road (Route 1) became intolerable. It didn’t reach its present form until 1958.

For decades, tolls from the Connecticut Turnpike and the two parkways brought in lots of money — more than enough to cover their own upkeep — but that revenue is long gone. And the Interstates were built with 90 percent federal money, but the Highway Trust Fund is nearly broke; it will run out of money in July.

What to do?

Either this state should bring back tolls (modern technology can take care of most of the inconvenience and safety concerns) or Uncle Sam should increase his share of the gasoline tax (which now stands at a paltry 18.4 cents per gallon.) Or both.



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