I-95 Gold Star Memorial Bridge University of Connecticut

It’s a shame that public debate over highway tolls has fallen to flat out fear-mongering.

In their recent op-ed, writers Sean Goldrick and Gail Berritt say with zero regard for the facts that Connecticut needs highway tolls to fix its structurally deficient bridges and prevent another Mianus Bridge collapse, which claimed five lives in 1983.

They point out that the I-95 Byram River Bridge in Fairfield County is considered “structurally deficient” and ask, “How many people will die this time if the Byram River Bridge collapses, not in the middle of the night, but at 5 p.m. on a Friday?”

One doesn’t have to search the Federal Highway Administration website very long to find that “structurally deficient” is an industry term that simply means the bridge will require more maintenance – not that it is, in any way, in danger of collapsing.

The FHWA could not, in fact, be any more clear, saying: “The classification of a bridge as structurally deficient does not mean that it is likely to collapse or that it is unsafe.” Saying the opposite shows a disregard for the people of Connecticut who pay for bridge and road upkeep.

It also shows the writers don’t have much confidence in Connecticut’s government to actually protect the public — all the while advocating that drivers send another $800 million to Hartford in the form of tolls.

The Connecticut Department of Transportation, which received $620 million in 2018 from the Special Transportation Fund, is responsible for inspecting, maintaining and fixing state-owned bridges. Implying that the department is too inept to shut down a bridge on the verge of collapse does not give the public confidence that toll money will be spent wisely on issues of vital public safety and infrastructure.

Even without tolls, Connecticut has the second lowest percentage of structurally deficient bridges in the Northeast, according to the Federal Highway Administration. As of 2017, just under 8 percent of the state’s total bridges were considered “structurally deficient.”

The state shares responsibility for maintaining some bridges with local governments, so the percentage of structurally deficient bridges the state is actually responsible for maintaining is around 4 percent, according the state’s own numbers.

All bridges, over time, become structurally deficient and require more maintenance. It doesn’t mean they are going to collapse or are unusable. If a bridge is dangerous, the state would close it.

The Mianus Bridge collapse spurred the creation of Connecticut’s Special Transportation Fund in order to support transportation development and maintenance in Connecticut. It’s a fund that has been repeatedly used by lawmakers to help close budget deficits over the years, to the point where voters had to approve a constitutional “lock box” to prevent any more raids.

But, of course, there are other ways to get those  funds. Instead of a raid, pro-toll lawmakers substitute the word “diversion” or “transfer,” actions not protected by the lock box.

Gov. Lamont proposed a “diversion” of vehicle sales tax revenue to the Special Transportation Fund that would have amounted to underfunding that fund by $1.19 billion over five years. The legislature passed a watered-down diversion, undercutting the special fund by $171.6 million over two years. Lawmakers will likely seek more diversions when they craft the next biennial budget.

If Gov. Lamont or the legislature is worried about collapsing bridges, they certainly have a strange way of showing it.

But the push for tolls is – and always has been – a revenue grab by politicians trying to institute another tax on Connecticut families to make up for years of fiscal mismanagement and poor transportation spending decisions, which they have yet to make any meaningful effort to correct.

We’ve all heard the claim that every state has tolls. Sure, on some roads or bridges. But no state tolls every existing lane of every interstate highway, which is being proposed in Connecticut.

This would make Connecticut a worse place to live and work. It’s hard enough to get by in a high-cost state without having to be taxed for driving to work. We need to make Connecticut a place where people want to live, not a place they want to leave.

Falsely telling everyone that Connecticut’s bridges are about to collapse is fear mongering — probably not the best way to build trust and confidence in Connecticut’s state government to wisely manage $800 million more in taxpayer dollars.

Sasser is founder of Stamford-based No Tolls CT.

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37 Comments

  1. Thank you for your counter argument. We need more of these pieces that show we the CT citizen are on the facts of why the gov’t wants tolls from us.

  2. Mr. Sasser’s research, facts, and comments are correct. Despite Berritt and Goldrick’s “The sky is falling” alarmist rhetoric, it is not falling. In addition to the facts Sasser presented, a recent nationwide study from a toll advocating non-partisian research group compared all 50 states on more than a dozen categories show Connecticut is just under the mid point of the “structurally deficient bridges” category, 24th of 50. Fear based writing from Berritt and Goldrick fails, just as the fear based ad campaign from the road construction company and road construction union group failed several months ago. Ct citizens know better.

    1. The facts are that revenue from the gas tax is flat and is projected to go down over the next 30 years as more and more alternative fuel vehicles hit our roads. The gas tax has not been increased in more than 20 years. What it buys today is significantly less than it did back then. This is a recipe for failure over the long term. We will not be able to maintain our roads and bridges let alone improve them unless something is done.

      Raising the gas tax as many other states are now doing, puts the vast majority of the revenue increase on Connecticut drivers who buy gas here. Out of state drivers pay little to nothing to use our roads. Tolls change that and it’s been projected that as much as $320 million per year could come from out of state drivers who currently pay little toward our states roads. That will go a very long way to rebuilding and improving our highways.

      1. Jay, Nowhere in Mr. Sasser’s article or my reply above do he or I advocate increasing the gas tax. In fact, I have advocated reducing our gas tax so Ct retailers can achieve price parity with neighboring states and our gas sales & gas tax $$ will increase. Your gas tax comment ignored the fear mongering point of of Sasser’s article and my comment.

        I already replied to your out of staters talking point with researched facts and a chart from one of the taxpayer funded studies done for our DOT, yet you simply repeated that talking point and offer an undocumented dollar estimate.

      2. Decreasing the gas tax solves nothing and only exasperates an already difficult problem. No one wants tolls or to pay higher gas taxes but the fact is if we want to maintain and improve our roads it’s going to cost money. The gas tax has not been raised in 20 years. The federal government is funding less and less of projects and there are no signs of that changing in the near future. The money has to come from somewhere. Tolls or increased gas taxes are the only viable options.

      3. Decreasing the gas tax so our retailers have price parity with neighboring states will help. That will eliminate the motivation to avoid buying gas in Ct and filling up in our neighboring states.

        Lamont’s Chief of Staff and some legislative leaders went to D.C. during the past several weeks to learn more about how the federal government can help Ct with funding for our road work. If your statement were true, they would not have made those trips to D.C.

        Tolls or increased gas taxes are NOT the only options. Even toll advocates say that.

      4. Studies have been done showing reductions in the Gas Tax resulted in MORE tax revenue not less. Simply put, when the retail price of gasoline is more in CT than surrounding states we sell less gas. You would need to double to gas tax for that NOT to happen.

        2nd address the hidden gas tax called the Gross Receipts Tax which was put in place for underground gasoline tank clean ups and Gov. Malloy cancelled that program but left the tax in a midnight move.

        I support tolls but only when the swiss cheese lock box if fixed, pension police expenses removed from the STF – GRT Tax removed so CT taxpayers get a real break to pay those tolls. More important a voter referendum to change the fixed lock box – sorry don’t trust either side as over $2 Billion has already been diverted from tax revenue!!

      5. I’ll take the gas tax going up over tolls. It will not cost 200 million to build gantries over a gas station. It won’t require state gov’t to hire a whole new dept filled with new pensions and Cadillac Bennys. There is no up front costs to upping the gas tax. Also instead of going after those out of staters. We need to after telsas and bolts and put a tax on electrical cars. No free rides

      6. Jay- you are flat out wrong on reducing the gas tax exasperates the problem. Studies have been done showing reductions in the Gas Tax resulted in MORE tax revenue not less. Simply put, when the retail price of gasoline is more in CT than surrounding states we sell less gas. You would need to double to gas tax for that NOT to happen.

        2nd address the hidden gas tax called the Gross Receipts Tax which was put in place for underground gasoline tank clean ups and Gov. Malloy cancelled that program but left the tax in a midnight move.

        I support tolls but only when the swiss cheese lock box if fixed, pension police expenses removed from the STF – GRT Tax removed so CT taxpayers get a real break to pay those tolls. More important a voter referendum to change the fixed lock box – sorry don’t trust either side as over $2 Billion has already been diverted from tax revenue!!

  3. Talk about fear mongering. There is nothing to say that toll money will be used for anything but the highways they are collected in. Federal law requires that.

    Much of the so called “money grab” from the Transportation Fund are changes in what could be funded through the fund. For example, should DOT employee pension obligations be taken from the fund? Should State Police?

    The fact is revenue from the gas tax is flat and projected to go down. 20 years of inflation have eaten away at the buying power of the fund. At some point, we will need to provide more money to transportation. If we raise the gas tax, virtually all of the burden of that increase will fall on Connecticut residents. We are paying so that out of state drivers use our roads for free. To me that makes no sense and is unfair when you consider virtually every state on the east coast has tolls.

    1. “virtually every state on the east coast has tolls.”
      That’s just repeat of a false talking point that’s often said despite readily available facts. No state on the east coast or in the USA has highway tolls to the extent proposed for Ct. None.
      https://ctmirror.org/category/ct-viewpoints/drive-from-here-to-canada-without-tolls/?fbclid=IwAR3_oLTITPMZYyBQMj3N7WAgqdd—LRFc6cKGW0wDGY-d-TZjLMAFWT37U

      The “Let’s get those out of sate drivers.” is another piece of toll propaganda. First, the vast majority of drivers who might pay tolls in Ct will be us – Connecticut drivers. None of the various claimed percentages of out of state drivers is higher than Ct drivers. One of the more reliable study’s number is 25%, meaning we’re 75%. Second, creating an “other” group to be angry with is a decades old divisive tactic of dictators. Don’t fall for that. https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/bdfe69b09b64e073d65afac8e7e3ce47510b320f36c6a5fbaefe7a7255ac803f.jpg

    2. “We are paying so that out of state drivers use our roads for free.”

      Federal dollars come from all the states. They do not use our roads for free and, in fact, have a legitimate gripe about how much of their money is diverted to Connecticut.

    3. Jay, you’re wrong about this. It’s a widespread myth – “There is nothing to say that toll money will be used for anything but the highways they are collected in. Federal law requires that.”
      No, Federal law does not require that. The FHWA allows using highway toll $$ for non-highway transportation use and in different locations than where those $$ were collected. I base that on interviews I’ve done with FHWA officials in DC and researching the laws governing it.

  4. If transportation funding were the overarching priority that the push for tolls makes it seem, then the STF would never be raided for other purposes.

    Mr. Sasser puts it well, “If Gov. Lamont or the legislature is worried about collapsing bridges, they certainly have a strange way of showing it.”

    That and the almost highest in the country per mile maintenance cost makes all repairs/maintenance/construction 3x the average

    “Overall, Connecticut spent $209,157 per lane mile of road in the state, compared to the average of $71,117.”

    https://yankeeinstitute.org/2019/08/22/connecticut-ranks-44th-for-transportation-spending-dead-last-for-administrative-costs-per-mile/

    Cut expenses and we’ll be able to afford more “critical maintenance”

    1. The Yankee Institute analysis is severely flawed. It does not look at why Connecticut or other states spend so much per mile. Much of the our budget goes to Bridge reconstruction projects which are much more expensive per mile than open highway construction. If you look at state rankings the highest ones are highly urbanized states that have highways with a lot of bridges. Of course the cost per lane mile is higher.

      1. The analysis isn’t from the Yankee Institute, Jay. Their article clearly states where it’s from and provides a link to it.

        The analysis is from the non-partisan, toll advocating Reason Foundation. They advocate for toll taxes and for mileage based driving taxes in two articles on their web site, plus advocate for two new tolled lanes on I-95 here in Ct. They are certainly not anti-toll.

        Their methodology this year was changed party to accommodate complaints received from our former DOT Commissioner, James Redecker. Despite those changes, the rankings still place Ct in poor positions relative to the other 49 states. The ranking for congestion shows it isn’t as bad as some say. The administrative cost ranking is terrible. Those rankings undermine arguments for electronic driving TAXES on highways all over Ct. It’s a bad idea for many reasons, including those.

        Connecticut citizens are smart and see through driving TAX advocates’ propaganda. Public opinion polls since 2009 rightly show clear opposition.

      2. Hi NT49, 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.

      3. WatsonAL referenced the Yankee Institute which is why I disputed it. The point is we have a lot of bridges that we maintain which are a lot more expensive than open roads. These analyses do not take this into account, nor do they consider traffic maintenance which is much higher in urban. If you look at state rankings, more rural states are always higher because they just do not have the same issues or expenses urban states do.

      4. See the comparison budget comparison with North Carolina above – 5x the number of road miles, 3x the number of bridges and with bigger cities than CT, by far. They seem to manage with 32% in expenses more than CT in spite of the huge difference in road miles and bridges maintained.

        Cut CT maintenance and overhead expenses to be in line with other states and then see what we can “afford”.

      5. Comparing North Carolina DOT directly to CTDOT is not fair. You forget that North Carolina has counties that maintain and fund roads as well. Connecticut does not. Also CTDOT runs one of the busiest commuter railroads in the country as well as two other rail lines, six airports, two ferries, 650 buses and a state pier. Mass transit, particularly rail, is very expensive. Connecticut is the fourth most densely populated state in the country. North Carolina is 15th. Connecticut is located between two of the largest and most expensive cities in the country. North Carolina is a low cost southern state. Of course NCDOT has a lower budget. You can’t really compare the two.

      6. The comparison was between North Carolina state maintained roads and Connecticut state maintained roads by the respective state DOT’s, so the comparison is completely relevant. And the budget dollars referenced only pertain to CT highway maintenance funds, not for railroads or other transportation modes.

        Sorry, CT’s cost per mile are way out of the average and it has to do with excessive employee count, work rules (two employees in all trucks), benefit and pension obligations.

        By all measures, North Carolina does far more with relatively less funds.

        Cut CT DOT expenses. Period.

      7. You keep throwing out different figures and references. You compared North Carolina DOT budget to CTDOT. As I said, you can’t compare budgets when we have a lot more mass transit than they do. The Reason.org analysis is simplistic and severely flawed. It does not acknowledge that much of our road maintenance involves bridges that are much more expensive to maintain than open highways. Even the great Republican naysayer, State Senator Len Fasano has acknowledged that there is little left to cut. Believe what you want but the fact is the state is facing a severe transportation funding crisis. No amount of cutting is going to fix it.

      8. You have not refuted a single data point – you only reference reports as being “severely flawed”. The figures I posted are CT DOT for highway/road/bridge maintenance only and do not include any other dollars. CT DOT spent $52 million in overtime last year — all contributing to out of market pension obligations.

        The numbers tell the story. Connecticut spends 4-5x the amount per mile as other states. North Carolina has 3x the number of bridges as Connecticut. Charlotte has 7x the population of Hartford.

      9. Hi WatsonAL, the Yankee Institute published a piece yesterday detailing concerns with the Reason.org analysis and how the Connecticut Department of Transportation plans to more effectively categorize its spending going forward to avoid being incorrectly ranked by Reason in future years. The data show that the administrative cost per mile is dramatically lower than Reason’s analysis suggests it is:

        https://yankeeinstitute.org/2019/09/04/connecticut-dot-reclassifies-spending-to-lower-reported-administrative-costs/

        Also, Charlotte may have 7x the population of Hartford as far as city boundaries are concerned, but it also has 18x the land area (308 sq. mi. versus 17 sq. mi.) Like most cities outside of the Northeast, Charlotte’s city limits extend into almost all of its suburbs. If you use comparable land area, Charlotte is only a little more than double the size of Hartford in population.

      10. Those figures only address one aspect of the spending formula. If one compares what a dollar of revenue/spending buys in Connecticut vs other states, the delta is still very substantial.

        The figures I referenced are revenue in each state devoted to state maintained highway, road and bridge maintenance. North Carolina has multiples of all three compared to Connecticut but only spends 32% more.

        Once Connecticut spending per mile or lane is within 10% of the countrywide average, we can talk about more “revenue” but until then, Connecticut is well out of market for its current revenue spend.

        Since the private sector pays for every cent of state spending, its egregious to have the public sector not be subject to the same dynamics – do more with less, elimination of pensions, $15,000 deductible health insurance. Talk to us when there is parity with the private sector in that regard.

      11. You don’t seem to get it. Cost per mile is a flawed way to analyze costs. Look at the list. All of the lowest ranked states are more urban and densely populated while the highest ranked are more rural. That makes no sense to criticize a state that has higher expenses because of their infrastructure. It’s kind of simple logic.

        As for CTDOT overtime, this is because the state has reduced the number of employees over the years. Would you rather they hire hundreds of additional employees? OT is cheaper for the state in the long run.

      12. No, I and many others do “get it”.

        Connecticut’s state labor force is completely out of market for its compensation, benefits and pension costs. Cost per mile or cost per lane is exactly the proper way to compare — why does it cost 5x to pave one mile of road in Connecticut compared with North Carolina? The material costs are going to be roughly equivalent. The difference is labor costs. Period.

        The economy is relatively good in Connecticut right now, which still puts it behind virtually the entire rest of the country. When it declines, wait and see how many companies, their taxpaying employees and retirees leave as they have tired of paying ever increasing taxes because the state has been unwilling to cut expenses.

        Every cent of state “revenue” comes from the private sector and its employees. Don’t forget it.

      13. How many bridges does Connecticut have vs North Carolina? Because NC has 80,000 state maintained highway and road miles and 13,500 state maintained bridges.

        https://ncgovdocs.org/guides/transportationhighways.htm

        Connecticut has 4,054 state controlled highway/road miles and 4,238 bridges in the entire state or 1/5 that of North Carolina’s road miles and 1/3 that of bridges.

        Connecticut’s transportation budget is about $3.8 billion/year between STF revenue, Federal funds and annual bonding.

        https://reason.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/01/23rd_annual_highway_report.pdf

        North Carolina’s is $5 billion to maintain almost 20x the number of miles.

        Please provide facts to show us how Connecticut doesn’t spend magnitudes more to maintain much much lower miles. And Charlotte (859,000 residents) and the Raleigh/Durham (478,000 residents) area are highly urbanized (and gaining, not losing population) with populations 3-6x Bridgeport, Connecticut’s largest city.

  5. Paying debt service on bonds is exactly the wrong way to go in fixing Connecticut’s transportation system – adds to the already huge cost and all sides know this! Don’t fall for the recent bond rating upgrade to go this route. Using a Credit Card for transportation cost’s which are already some of the highest in the nation will only increase those costs. Just common senses! We just dug ourselves out of a huge hole – don’t follow past ways of doing business because it’s easier or make political sense!

    The governor and anyone saying to just cut the gasoline tax by five cents is not listening – that is like a bride to get your way – again does not address the real issues!

    Let me make this very easy: Voters, Democrats and Republicans alike, remember the past of raiding the Special Transportation Fund. We are talking about billions of dollars being collected as a tax and then diverted into the general fund for whatever reason – either way it was not for transportation needs. If only we bank those billions and collected interest on that money!! So if both sides of the isle and the Governor really want voter/taxpayer support from both side of the isle, here are my suggestions after talking with those voters – all should try this but you won’t!

    1. Eliminate the hidden gas tax called the gross receipts tax that saves the voters who have been paying the tab and the ones who were robbed –a break that makes sense.

    2. The Transportation Lock box must be a real lock box that can only be changed by a voter referendum. This means either diversion of revenue or inserting costs into the fund. Get Pensions out of the STF. That restores the trust that has been broken with the taxpayers of this state. If the toll money is really going to only be used for transportation and not misdirected, what is the problem? Recent news stories tell this clear story -People became distrustful as toll plans were constantly changing, cost and revenues estimates understated and the lockbox on the Special Transportation Funds (STF) was unlocked. The Democrat’s budget just passed diverts $58 million of the car sales tax slated for the STF into the General Fund.

    The only reason the governor or either party would not do this is if the real intent is to divert toll revenue or transfer expenses into the fund. Both parties are too blame for this! Now is the time to restore trust to those who pay the bills – the taxpayers of Connecticut and charge all those using our roadways, especially the out of State vehicles who have paid zero. Period!

    Michael J. Fox
    Executive Director
    Gasoline & Automotive Service Dealers of America, Inc.

    1. Hi CT Gas Guy, 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.

    2. Mr. Fox, Simply ending the mis-use of the STF and moving the pension, benefits, and personnel expenses for DOT, DMV, and Public Safety (the State Police) out of the STF would save close to the $1 Billion that toll advocates are thirsting for. Those expenses were wrongly shifted to the STF beginning in the mid-80s, don’t fit the STF’s purpose of bridge & road upkeep, and should be removed.

      As a representative of business people certainly you know that keeping expenses low will increase bottom line revenue. The electronic driving tax systems you favor have huge initial and on-going expenses that consume revenue. They are known to be the most inefficient tax systems and a bad choice.

      1. The hidden Gas Tax called the Gross Receipts Tax must be eliminated because it never was intended to be used by the STF. It was for leaking underground storage tank replacement and now station owners have to purchase very expensive insurance. That is just wrong to tax only 1 industry. Removing this tax will result in savings for CT Tax Payers to pay reduced tolls.

        Gas Tax is a dying revenue stream due to increased mileage of never cars and electric cars are coming. We can’t wait any longer to tax out of State Drivers – they have been getting a FREE Ride. Those issue must be addressed!

      2. Our of state drivers don’t get a free ride as toll advocates keep harping on. They pay Federal fuel taxes of which a portion comes back to each state, including Ct. Regardless of that and the ever changing percentages of out of state drivers in Ct, we, Ct citizens, will pay the most if unneeded tolls are implemented.

        Newer vehicles? Auto companies have been dropping sedans from their product offerings in favor of less fuel efficient SUVs, pick ups, and crossovers because of consumer demand. Electric vehicle are a rare and small percentage of vehicles being sold.

  6. Sooner or later the tolls are coming. When I travel to many states I run into them. I would suggest placing tolls just at major bridges on 95 91 and 84. This way you capture through traffic. Most tolls I encounter are bridge tolls. Just look at the one near Newport. And many in NY. But before anything there must be a lock box that can only be used for roads and bridges.

    1. Dear Nobody, When I travel to many states I run into no highway tolls. But, what you and I personally experience with seat of the pants observations is far less important than impersonal, empirical research. What that shows is the proposals for Ct exceed what exists in any state of the USA. Here’s more info about that – https://ctmirror.org/category/ct-viewpoints/drive-from-here-to-canada-without-tolls/?fbclid=IwAR3_oLTITPMZYyBQMj3N7WAgqdd—LRFc6cKGW0wDGY-d-TZjLMAFWT37U

  7. Some really interesting posts. However, the simple and plain truth is Connecticut’s Democrats should be focused on reducing taxes and the high cost of living on the middle class in order to restore economic competitiveness and attract investment (Republicans have been saying that for a very long time). Tolls do the opposite, they are a regressive tax on those that can least afford new taxes and that is why they are dead in the water. The average family could be looking at $1.5 – 2.5k per year in tolls just to get to work and do their kids after school events!

  8. As someone who just had to spend a lot of money replacing tires that were bubbled and split as a result of hitting potholes on CT roads, I welcome the idea of tolls – but only on the condition that the money collected is ring-fenced or lock boxed for road repairs and can’t be raided to meet budget deficits. When I told the tire guy about the bone-rattling pothole just over the CT line in Byram, he smiled and said he had a lot of customers coming in for new tires as a result of just that one particular pothole. Justin Higgins claims this is a regressive tax, but isn’t having to replace your tires every year, too? Not to mention damage to struts, etc, as a result of potholes. We’re going to pay the costs one way or another – and I’d rather ensure that the 18-wheelers going through our state pay their fair share than have 100% of the costs coming out of CT taxpayer pockets, as they do now.

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