The Merritt Parkway

How did we get here?

Recognizing that “transportation is the backbone of our economy,” Gov. Dannel Malloy in 2014 undertook a transportation initiative called Transform Connecticut intended to produce a strategic plan to improve the state’s transportation system so as to promote economic growth. After analyzing the existing system and obtaining input from numerous concerned citizens and groups around the state, the Connecticut Department of Transportation released a report called LET’S GO CT that Governor Malloy presented to the Legislature in February 2015.

LET’S GO CT presented a bold plan for improving each of the state’s multi-modal transportation systems—highways and bridges, rail and bus, air and water. In total, the itemized improvements were estimated to cost a staggering $100 billion over the next 30 years. Of that sum, two-thirds, or $66 billion, was to be spent simply to maintain the existing system, while the remaining $34 billion would be used to expand the capacity of each system to accommodate future growth in population, commerce and traffic volumes.

Next, the governor appointed a panel of legislative and business leaders to recommend strategies for funding the transportation improvements included in LET’S GO CT. The Finance Panel reported their findings in January, 2016. They included recommendations for new sources of revenue the panel believed would keep the state’s Special Transportation Fund (STF) solvent for at least the next 15 years. Beyond that they thought financing for the program could be better evaluated when the time came.

At the core of their revenue-raising recommendations were proposals to return the gas tax to the level of the 1990s, when it was 39 cents per gallon, and to implement electronic tolling to help pay specifically for improvements in two of the state’s major travel corridors: along the shoreline route from New York to Rhode Island, and through the center of the state from New York to Hartford. The Finance Panel also insisted that the new revenues be dedicated solely to transportation improvements, and not be used to meet the non-transportation needs of the state’s General Fund.

To this end, the panel recommended a new constitutional amendment to protect all transportation revenues.

Didn’t we have tolls before?

Tolls have been used to pay for transportation improvements in Connecticut since colonial times and the early days of nationhood, beginning with ferries in the 1630s, bridges in the 1760s, and highways in the 1790s. Tolls were seen then, as now, as the fairest way to fund any transportation project since only those individuals who use a given facility —be it ferry, bridge or highway— are made to pay for it’s construction and maintenance.

With the coming of the automobile, the state’s modern system of paved highways was funded not by the collection of highway tolls, but rather by fees paid to the Division of Motor Vehicles (DMV) to register each vehicle and license its driver (beginning in 1907) and with a tax on the gasoline used to power that vehicle (beginning in 1921).

The rapid growth of automobile ownership and miles traveled during the first decades of the century allowed the Connecticut Highway Department to convert the state’s existing network of dirt roads to a modern, paved highway network of nearly 2,500 miles using these two motor vehicle taxes alone. Up to 1923, toll revenue was still used to build many of the state’s modern highway bridges. But in that year, tolls were removed from all highway bridges in Connecticut, and from then on through the 1930s state highways and bridges were improved solely from revenue raised through DMV fees and gasoline taxes.

With the construction of the first controlled access expressways in the 1930s, the state returned to the collection of tolls to help pay for this new and expensive kind of highway. Tollbooths were first erected in the late 1930s and early 1940s on the Merritt and Wilbur Cross parkways, and again in the early 1950s to pay for the Greenwich – Killingly Expressway, also known as the Connecticut Turnpike, which was built in the years before the federal interstate system was funded.

With passage of the Interstate Highway Act of 1956, the portion of the Connecticut Turnpike from Greenwich to Waterford paid for with state funds was transferred to the federal interstate system as I-95, and the tolls were allowed to remain. Certain high-level expressway bridges, including the Baldwin Bridge over the Connecticut River and the Gold Star Memorial Bridge over the Thames River, were also built and maintained through the collection of tolls.

In the mid 1980s, as the bonds that built the Connecticut Turnpike were about to be paid in full, residents along the route lobbied the legislature to remove all tolls from I-95. A fiery accident in January of 1986, in which several persons were killed while stopped at one of the toll stations, brought the matter to a head. Toll stations were now seen as dangerous obstacles to the normal flow of traffic, and the legislature decided to remove all tollbooths not just from I-95, but also from the Merritt and Wilbur Cross parkways, and all existing toll bridges in the state as well.

The removal was done in stages, but by the end of the 1980s, Connecticut for the second time in its history had become a toll free state.

To compensate for the loss of toll revenue, the state gasoline tax increased dramatically over the next few years, from 25 cents to 39 cents per gallon. As with the current toll issue, the increase in gas taxes soon became a political football, and by the late 1990s, the state had acquiesced to public pressure, and reduced the gas tax by 14 cents a gallon, without replacing the income needed to fund the state’s ongoing transportation commitments. As a result, projects scheduled for the early 2000s were cancelled or postponed.

Commenting on the high cost of ConnDOT’s current LET’S GO CT plan, the Finance Panel noted: “if the gas tax had not been reduced, the STF would have been able to execute on hundreds of projects that are now part of Connecticut’s backlog, and the price tag for LET’S GO CT would be significantly lower.” The new tolls proposed for Connecticut highways are in a way an effort to replace the stream of gas tax revenues lost in the 1990s. Also, as the Finance Panel noted, that alone will likely not be sufficient to keep the STF solvent for the next 15 years. A gas tax increase “back to the 1990s rate of 39¢ per gallon” was also recommended.

What is the real problem?

Connecticut has been in an ongoing budget crunch since the 1970s, due largely to the increasing cost of social programs (from education to health care and welfare) that originated in the 1960s as part of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society initiative. One tack taken by legislators to balance these budget shortfalls was to use funds dedicated to transportation improvements for non-transportation uses.

History tells us that removing tolls from Connecticut highways and bridges in the 1980s was a financial mistake, as was the lowering of the gasoline tax in the 1990s.

For example, in 1975, the existing transportation fund was dissolved, and all monies placed in the General Fund instead. Transportation projects then had to compete with social programs for funding, and many projects, and especially maintenance, were deferred as a result, leading to the Mianus River Bridge collapse of 1986. In the aftermath of that tragedy, the STF was reinstated, but as budget shortfalls continued, legislators created dubious loopholes and other financial slights of hand to continue their use of dedicated transportation funding to balance the state’s general budget.

The need to prevent such practices finally led the voters of Connecticut to approve a constitutional amendment in 2018 (as recommended by the Finance Panel) to deter such shenanigans in the future.

Gov. Ned Lamont, who has taken up the mantle of Connecticut transportation from Malloy, is expected to call Connecticut legislators into special session this summer to discuss two issues critical to the state’s overall economic health. One concerns how much additional debt to incur in order to balance the current budget shortfall. The matter of state debt and budget shortfalls is a complex issue that has resulted from decades of unsavory tactics, such as deferred pension payments, to balance ever-increasing shortfalls in the general budget. It is a complex issue that will involve difficult debate over the cutting of established social programs, and take many years and a tremendous amount of political will to resolve.

The other issue concerns whether to reinstate tolls on certain Connecticut expressways. Considered separate from the debt problem, the toll question is both simple and straightforward. History tells us that removing tolls from Connecticut highways and bridges in the 1980s was a financial mistake, as was the lowering of the gasoline tax in the 1990s.

A safe, up-to-date transportation system is a must for long-term economic growth, and tolls are the most equitable way to collect the revenue necessary to provide such a system directly from those who use it, including the large portion of travelers (in some areas as much as 40 percent) who travel into and through Connecticut but come from New York and Massachusetts. We must not take out our frustration over the state’s ongoing budget crisis on the issue of highway tolls. Funding Connecticut’s transportation future is an equally important but separate issue. We need highway tolls to provide the financing necessary to build the projects proposed in LET’S GO CT and bring transportation in the state (and the economic growth it makes possible) back up to speed.

Richard DeLuca has just completed a two-volume history of transportation developments in Connecticut from colonial times through to the administrations of Malloy and Lamont. Volume one. Post Roads & Iron Horses, was published by Wesleyan University Press in 2011. Volume two, Paved Roads & Public Money, is scheduled for publication next spring.

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23 Comments

  1. Transportation alone will not fix Connecticut’s economy. We need to restore our competitive advantages in order to attract large employers. For that we need lower costs of living starting with cuts to income and property taxes for the middle class.

  2. The design flaw and lack of maintenance on the Mianus Bridge,that bordered on criminal, had nothing to do with a lack of toll revenue.
    Proponents of tolls will eventually get their way and if history tells us anything at all it is that the revenue will vanish into the General Fund.

    1. The toll proponents have not gotten their way for TEN years. Opponents have defeated it every year since 2009. This year is harder, but the proponents have not gotten their way yet and they thought it would be easy this year. Stay optimistic, keep the faith, keep working on it so the bad idea of putting driving taxes on highways all over Ct does not happen.

  3. Thanks for the history lesson (Seriously, I am not being sarcastic), it was very interesting. Speaking with people in my circle who are largely against tolls, the main objection seems to be that they don’t believe that the funds will be used to fix and maintain the roads, bridges, and dams. The most cynical among us believe that the STF will be distributed to the state employees unions or other party partisans, and the state’s infrastructure will remain one of the worst in the country

  4. Most of those years what you leave you out is the no state income tax during those years. I’d gladly pay tolls to go back to no income tax. That was CTs advantage. They took that away from us. Also funny how the gas tax reduction was around the same time as the income tax. There is 100 millions in cost now to reimplement tolls. You can raise revenues now just by raising the gas tax and also taxing electricity charging stations with a per watt tax. This can done with minimum costs and high returns with out setting up al whole new govt branch that will costs 30% of the revenues that tolls will bring. With tolls comes more state employees with benefits and pension that we citizens are already overburdened with. NO TOLLS until our gov’t can be trusted. Which will never happen

    1. Good points about the high overhead costs of driving tax systems. They are known to be a very inefficient tax system. For comparison, look at how minimal the overhead expenses are for the Passport to Parks tax that DMV collects with vehicle registrations. Look at the Healthy Homes Fund that private homeowners insurance companies collect. Look at the plastic bag tax that retail stores have to collect as of yesterday. Those last two even have private companies doing the collecting chore for the state! That’s really low overhead. Electronic driving taxes are far on the other extreme of overhead expenses. For that reason alone, they are a bad idea,.

  5. I am sorry. I did want to mention this article and history was a great read. The author spent a lot time and research into it. I stil don’t want tolls but the history in this was great to read.

  6. What doesn’t often get mentioned in any pro-tolls argument is that toll money is limited in terms of what it can be used for. The Governor and the various commissions love to speak of ‘transportation improvements.”

    The Gov pushes his 30-30-30 goals for trains into NYC. That’s not spending on roads and bridges. Car sales taxes, which were planned to go into the STF ‘lockbox’ were prevented from doing so, which was followed by the claim of an STF funding crisis. We all know of the ‘out of state trucks” to “all trucks” to ‘all vehicles” progression in the tolls sales pitch. The Bus line (CTFastrack) continues to be a boondoggle for the State. The Hartford Courant reported in May of this year that CTFastrack is a net LOSS of $22 million per year.

    People would be far less suspicious of the entire CT State Government bureaucracy if they’d start being honest with us and stop ALL of their financial shenanigans. That would be a great place, and immediately would be a great time, to start

  7. …..ridiculously widescale tolls will ONLY expedite the wiping out of CT’s economy, and before LONG – while there are FAR more desirable ways of obtaining significant additional income OTHER than taxation; i.e., unprecedented emergent, much LESS-costly and expeditious technological improvements to infrastructure…..

      1. PWS – If you are attempting to imply that our neighboring states have tolls, that’s only half true and a false comparison. None of our neighboring states, none of the New England states, none of the northeastern states, and no state in the USA has a driving tax (a/k/a “toll”) system as extensive as proposed for Connecticut. None.
        https://ctmirror.org/category/ct-viewpoints/drive-from-here-to-canada-without-tolls/?fbclid=IwAR3_oLTITPMZYyBQMj3N7WAgqdd—LRFc6cKGW0wDGY-d-TZjLMAFWT37U

      2. Sure. Because it’s a frequently used half truth and false comparison written and spoken by advocates of putting electronic driving taxes on highways all over Connecticut.

      3. Rhode Island tolls exactly 2.2 miles of a single
        bridge.

        Vermont tolls exactly 11.9 miles of highway.

        Massachusetts tolls exactly 49.34 miles, nearly all the Mass Turnpike.

        Maine tolls exactly 81.61 miles of the Maine Turnpike.

        New Hampshire tolls exactly 97.3 miles of highway.

      4. PWS – I’m interested to know how many miles of highways and parkways in NYS and in NJ have zero driving taxes on them and the % that is of NYS’s total highway and parkway miles, and the same for NJ. Can you tell us?

      5. I can’t. It’s difficult enough to get the total miles of tolls. It also gets into the question of what roads do you count. For example, here’s a map of New Jersey. Obviously 78 and 80 are ‘untolled’ roads, but how about 202, should that be counted? Should we just count limited access highways? or other large roads?

        https://geology.com/cities-map/new-jersey.shtml

        Here’s a map of New York. Obviously, most limited access highways are not tolled, but it’s a lot of effort to get the length of those sections.

        https://geology.com/cities-map/new-york.shtml

        Here’s Massachusets.

        https://geology.com/cities-map/massachusetts.shtml

        I’ll agree that Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine have only a nominal amount of tolling.

  8. “Up to 1923, toll revenue was still used to build many of the state’s modern highway bridges. But in that year, tolls were removed from all highway bridges in Connecticut, and from then on through the 1930s state highways and bridges were improved solely from revenue raised through DMV fees and gasoline taxes.”

    Mr DeLuca seems to have forgotten that the Charter Oak and Bissell bridges had tolls right up until the 1980s.

    1. Hi CT_Yankee_1, the author is correct in stating that Connecticut eliminated all bridge tolls in 1923 and then proceeded to rely on the gas tax and DMV fees into the 1930s. The author then notes in the following paragraph that the state returned to tolling in the late 1930s as they constructed more advanced highways, starting with tollbooths on the Merritt and Wilbur Cross Parkways. While the author doesn’t explicitly note it, the state also revived bridge tolling as part of the advanced highway building during this period with two new bridges — the Charter Oak Bridge (built 1945 for Route 15) and Bissell Bridge (built 1957 for I-291).

  9. I’ve traveled the entire length of I-95 several times and without exception the State of Connecticut has the worst section of the entire interstate… where have all the maintenance and construction fee’s gone?
    They will never deliver on their promises … guaranteed.

  10. Lottery money for education, car sales tax money for infrastructure, Passport for Parks money for state parks, all stolen. And now we learn of “intercepts” of revenue to get around spending caps. When will the good people of Connecticut learn that the politicians in Hartford can NEVER be trusted with more of our money?

  11. There are many problems with the notion that only by adding tolls can we pay for transportation: 

    1. CT already has two taxes on gas (one retail, one wholesale) as well as many different fees for driving and vehicle ownership. That should have been spent on transportation, but was diverted. 

    2. CT collects annual revenue over $18bn (including the aforementioned taxes). Who seriously contends no money can be found, in all of that, for transportation? 

    3. This article itself outlines many ways money promised to be spent for one purpose was diverted to something else. Adding tolls will only cause more, not less, of that. 

    4. Adding tolls will only continue to feed CT gov’t profligate spending habits — just as the additions of lottery money, income taxes, etc. did in the past. We’ve been down this road before, we know how it will turn out. 

    The bottom line is: CT’s wayward spending practices must be fixed before the state comes to drivers with a hand out looking for yet more money. Cut spending significantly, and for several years, and only then should anyone discuss handing CT a new revenue stream. To do anything else would be foolish. 

    1. Hi PsiCop, we welcome your comments but please note that our guidelines require that comments be limited to 1,000 characters. We will not be able to approve comments that exceed that limit going forward.

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