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OPINION: Avoid gridlock in the debate over tolls

OPINION: Avoid gridlock in the debate over tolls

By Mike Brodinsky

It's not complicated. No one likes tolls. Capitalizing on that sentiment, some politicians have conducted a traveling, ahem, road show to stoke opposition. They emphasize one side of the narrative. Maybe they are hoping to end the idea of tolls before it gets to a vote in Hartford. Really, though, we shouldn't end the story with a dead end, because that would result in perpetual gridlock — political and vehicular.  

Let's not squander our consensus that something needs to be done about Connecticut's transportation infrastructure. Both political parties agree on that. So before Republicans stomp all over tolls, creating attitudes that cannot be reversed; and before Democrats stomp all over the plan for more long-term debt; and before both sides irrevocably paint themselves into their respective corners, let's be more thoughtful and less reflexive.  We have a problem to solve.

You and me, everyone, we all need to agree first on the basics of transportation requirements. That's the initial step. Those who have more information than attitude need to lead that discussion. What are our long-term goals for highways, bridges, airports, and train service in the state? What will it cost to achieve those goals?  If we are open to spending lots of cash in the long term, what specifically do we get for our money? What's the tax impact? After we have that discussion and hopefully build an agreement, we can tackle the issue of how we pay for those improvements. This conversation needs time however, years maybe, in view of the fact that it got off to a bad start.

Ironically, both the Republican Party and Democratic Party seem to be together on the first, policy point:  Both favor more robust infrastructure maintenance and game-changing upgrades. They're preaching from the same gospel. But the two political parties haven't generated the same fervor in the public. Many taxpayers are unimpressed and unconvinced.  That's because the case for a new transportation policy hasn't been proven to the public yet and folks naturally bristle when big changes are dictated to them. Proving a case for infrastructure improvements would be hard even under the best of circumstances, because they appear theoretical and remote in both time and distance. And politicians haven't been clear and specific. For example: Would we get a tunnel under Hartford? Seriously? Another lane for Interstate 95 in Fairfield County? An easier way to get from I-91 northbound to I-84 towards Boston south of Hartford? Or how about a safer and faster way of connecting to I-84 from I-91 southbound in Meriden? If it's none of the above, then who cares?

Early in this discussion of transportation needs and priorities, the issue of tolls popped up, as it should have. The issue quickly got partisan. Inevitably, some politicians, talk show hosts, and pundits were all too ready to become populist demagogues against tolls.  On the other side of the debate, some inexplicably appeared to discount the repulsiveness of a never-ending series of toll gantries, and the costs they symbolized.  As a result, those who are opposed to tolls do not seem interested in whether the toll option has any advantages, which it most certainly does. And those who would accept tolls as the least awful alternative seem indifferent to the expensive and regressive nature of tolls, and the potential for a dictatorial and inefficient transportation authority. The consequence probably will be that if the Democrats' plan doesn't pass, the Republican plan won't pass either. Stalemate all around.  Is that what we want?

The dirtiest word in politics today is compromise. It makes everybody angry. So let's jump right in. Assuming everything that follows can be defended legally, a compromise plan might include: A very specific list of priced-out projects; a "transportation income tax credit" to middle and low earners; scaled back toll gantries; the steepest possible discount for Connecticut drivers; retention of the estate and gift taxes which impact the richest among us; and through competitive bidding, privatized contract and construction management with rigorous legislative oversight and enhanced transparency. If something like that doesn't work out, then by all means fight it out. Take your chances with stalemate, or let the side with the most votes win.

Mike Brodinsky is a former Wallingford town councilor and host of “Citizen Mike” on local public access TV.