Should Connecticut bring back highway tolls?

Should Connecticut bring back highway tolls?

There seems to be a basic scientific law recognized by those who are in the business of building highways: “You can’t build your way out of congestion.”

Study after study has indicated that increasing highway capacity results in “induced traffic”: when drivers learn that a highway has been widened, many of them switch their daily routes from other roads to that highway; or abandon public transit and return to travel by car; or make more and longer trips.

And before long, the newly improved highway becomes just as congested as before, because people will use it until the bumper-to-bumper ordeal again becomes intolerable.

And yet, more highway lanes are a big part of Gov. Dannel Malloy’s 30-year, $100 billion program to reduce highway congestion in Connecticut.

The plan is to widen Interstate 95, adding a lane in each direction all the way from New York to Rhode Island, and do the same to Interstate 84 from Waterbury to the New York line.

The Connecticut plan does include upgrades to rail service as well, which will probably make some difference, but academic studies strongly suggest that there’s only one way to substantially mitigate the “induced traffic” effect, and that is to make motorists pay for the privilege of using the highway, with tolls that vary by time of day to discourage rush-hour congestion.

This seems to be working in London, for instance, where peak pricing seems to have reduced car use, exhaust emissions and delays — even taxi fares, because traffic moves better. Meanwhile, revenue from the tolls has helped pay for expanded bus service.

The very idea of bringing back tolls, of course, is enough to give many Connecticut drivers the shivering fits.

We remember a time when you wouldn’t want to drive to New York without a fistful of quarters close at hand, and we also remember the reason the tolls were eliminated in the first place:

In January 1983 a tractor-trailer crashed into several cars at the Stratford toll plaza on the Connecticut Turnpike (I-95), triggering a fire that killed seven people, six of whom were burned beyond recognition, and injuring three others.

That crash was so traumatic for the state that even when the idea of once again charging drivers to use the highways has come up in recent years — and it has been brought up, repeatedly, in Hartford — you are more likely to hear about “mileage fees” than “tolls.”

These days, however, there are high-tech ways to collect tolls without actually stopping traffic at a toll booth, thus eliminating the danger of another such calamity. Even so, people may be so averse to the idea that politicians are very cautious about bringing the idea up.

This, even though several nearby states have continued to operate toll roads all along.

It’s impossible to say how “mileage fees” would affect Connecticut highways such as I-95, but no doubt the state Department of Transportation is looking into it. Presumably, many motorists would switch to Route 1, especially for shorter trips. Would that create another traffic logjam for the towns along the way, or would the extra traffic give them a retail boom, or both?

Now that every state budget reads like just another chapter in an ongoing fiscal crisis … now that the governor has made cut after cut to state services, but it’s never been quite enough … now that our lawmakers find themselves clutching at straws such as keno, or yet another casino, to balance the books … we have to at least seriously consider bringing back tolls.

Nothing else has worked so far, and maybe nothing will.


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