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OPINION: The unanswered questions regarding tolls

OPINION: The unanswered questions regarding tolls

By Len Suzio

The focus of the raging debate about tolls in Connecticut has been the “need” for a vast increase in the spending on roads and bridges. Toll proponents argue that the spending required to maintain and improve our roads and bridges far exceeds the existing revenues available to support transportation spending. A new source of revenue is needed, they argue, and tolls are their preferred method of raising the needed funding.

But the stupendous spending plans that are driving the underlying “need” for tolls have gone largely unquestioned. And it’s not only the capital spending that is unquestioned (and out of control), the Special Transportation Fund spending itself would shock most people. Today I will focus on the proposed Transportation Infrastructure spending. In another column I will address the spending in the Special Transportation Fund.

On February 18, 2015 Governor Malloy proposed a $100 billion 30-year transportation infrastructure spending “plan” (“Let’s Go CT”) to the legislature. The DOT developed a 5-year “Ramp-Up” plan and a 30-year “Bold Vision for a Transportation Future” document, complete with lots of graphs and glossy pictures, but short on details. This plan was never vetted by the Legislature. It was taken as a given and became the basis for the claim that transportation infrastructure spending far exceeded existing revenue sources.

Governor Malloy then convened a “Transportation Finance Panel” to determine how to pay for the record-breaking spending plan. That panel simply assumed the projected spending was necessary and then proposed not only tolls on every vehicle in Connecticut, but also a 50% increase the gas tax, a 15% increase in the Petroleum Gross receipts tax, increases of up to 40% on various motor-vehicle related fees and substantial increases in public transportation fares – all IN ADDITION to the installation of tolls! If the public ever really understood the outrageous tax schemes proposed by the Panel, there would have been a revolution at the Capitol.

During Transportation Committee hearings on bills in early 2019 I pointed out that the $100 billion spending plan was never examined or questioned by any committee in the legislature yet was the basis for claiming a “need” for tolls.  The Committee co-chair said the $100 billion spending plan wasn’t a “plan”, but rather an “aspirational list”. In other words, as preposterous as it sounds, a $100 billion “wish list” was driving the “need” for tolls!

Subsequent events and testimony by the current DOT Commissioner have proven beyond a doubt that Governor Malloy’s 30-year plan was worse than an “aspirational list.” It was purely “pie-in-the sky.” A good example of the inflated spending was the Waterbury “Mixmaster” which was in Governor Malloy’s Plan for $7.1 billion, but which is now under contract for $153 million. That means the original projected cost was exaggerated 4600% (46 times the contractual amount). Moreover, the new DOT Commissioner effectively admitted that Governor Malloy’s $100 billion 30-year plan was inflated by $40 billion when he testified that $2 billion annual spending would do the job.

The Lamont Administration appears also to have inflated spending to justify the claim that tolls are necessary. In his CT-2030 Plan Governor Lamont lays out a series of projects to be funded by tolls. But the costs of those projects presented in CT-2030 exceed the costs in the projects section of the DOT website. For example, the aforementioned Waterbury Mixmaster is priced in CT-2030 for $235 million to $260 million cost, but the DOT website shows the project is under contract and in progress at a cost of only $153 million, or nearly $100 million less than in the CT 2030 costs. Other projects in the CT-2030 Plan are inflated compared to the details on the DOT website too.

Both the Malloy and the Lamont Administrations are guilty of inflating Transportation Infrastructure spending. But there is another undiscussed aspect to the proposed Transportation Infrastructure spending.

Governor Lamont has proposed spending $21 billion on Transportation Infrastructure over 10 years. That spending includes $7 billion for public transportation. But the only new revenue source is tolls on trucks. Why hasn’t the governor proposed fare increases on trains to pay for spending on rail infrastructure?

Fewer than 3% of Connecticut’s population regularly use public transportation. Why shouldn’t affluent Fairfield County commuters pay for improvements on their transportation system to New York? Their income earned in New York is taxed in New York and credited against their Connecticut tax liability, which means Connecticut is subsidizing the rides of affluent commuters. In 2017, Connecticut commuters reduced their Connecticut income tax by $1.5 billion for payments to other states.

Before we even consider tolls, two questions must be answered: What is the real price of repairing and upgrading our bridges and highways and, why should Connecticut taxpayers subsidize the transportation of high-income commuters who pay their income taxes in New York?

Len Suzio is a former state Senator.