It’s time for the Democratic leaders of the General Assembly to demonstrate courage, call the legislature into special session, and enact tolls. They need to stop dithering, and pretending that they need Republican votes. Republicans, demonstrating shameless hypocrisy, will never support tolls.
It’s up to Democrats. And Democrats need to get it done now.
Why must we collect tolls? Because according to the 2017 report by TRIPnet, a transportation research organization, 57% of Connecticut’s roads are in poor condition. Because according to the group’s 2018 report, three out of five Connecticut bridges are over 50 years old, making our state the fourth worst in terms of aged and dangerous bridges. Eight percent of all of our bridges are rated “structurally deficient,” and those structurally deficient bridges are on average 69 years old. And it gets worse. A list of the 250 most heavily traveled structurally deficient bridges compiled by the American Road and Transportation Builders Association reveals that 25 of them are here in Connecticut.
Our small state accounts for 10% of the most dangerous highly traveled bridges in this country.
What happens if we don’t raise revenue to repair those bridges? We only need to look to 1983, when the Mianus River Bridge collapsed in the middle of the night, hurtling five people to their deaths on the rocks below. Its neighbor, the Byram River Bridge, which also carries I-95 traffic into the state, is among the most highly traveled bridges rated “structurally deficient.” How many people will die this time if the Byram River Bridge collapses not in the middle of the night, but at 5 pm on a Friday? How many lives are we willing to risk before taking decisive action to raise revenue to make the repairs that we know must be made?
Let’s be clear: tolls are the most cost-effective way to raise that revenue. According to Gov. Ned Lamont’s plan, and supported by the 2018 Connecticut Department of Transportation study, 40.6% of toll fees will be paid by out-of-state drivers. There is no other user fee or tax that we can possibly implement that will result in people from other states contributing 40% of the funds we require for our infrastructure.
And the federal government is not coming to our rescue. While barely a decade ago, the federal government contributed over half of the funds spent on transportation infrastructure in our state, today that figure is down to a third.
And let’s be clear that Connecticut is not going off on a crazy strategy of taking money from the pockets of its residents. According to a 2018 PEW report, “at least a half-dozen states from Florida to Colorado are slapping tolls on roads that used to be free or building toll-only lanes this year, and many more are expected to do so next year. It all shows how, despite the nation’s relatively robust economy, even the most basic state services — providing roadways, bridges and tunnels — are still being squeezed.”
And, let’s dispose of the Connecticut GOP’s charade, “Prioritize Progress.” That plan includes borrowing some $700 million every year in general obligation bonds, with interest and principal paid 100% by Connecticut taxpayers. The result: Connecticut will add millions of dollars to its credit card debt that will have to be paid back at high interest rates by you and me and our children.
Republicans claim that they will not raise borrowing, but instead will stop borrowing for other requirements. The absurdity of that claim is belied by the fact that the GOP refuses to tell taxpayers exactly what will be cut in this “prioritizing.” School construction, which annually comprises between a fifth and a third of total state borrowing? Higher education? Affordable housing? The Republicans won’t say because the outrage at their plan if it were to become clear would be instantaneous and deafening.
So, what’s the alternative if tolls don’t happen? Some are recommending a gas tax increase back to the 1990s rate of 39¢ per gallon from its current level of 25¢. But, raising the state’s gasoline tax is not only regressive, it is paid overwhelmingly by local residents, as opposed to tolls which collect far more from out-of-state drivers.
It’s clear that we need to return tolls to Connecticut. It’s time for Democratic leaders to stiffen their spines and get tolls passed. Republicans, no doubt, will wait until bodies are once again pulled from the rubble. Democrats need to take action before that happens. No more dithering.
Pick up your phone. Tell your legislator to implement tolls now.
Sean Goldrick is a Greenwich investment professional and Gail Berritt, a Westport attorney.