Let’s apply the ‘Myth Busters” TV show’s concept to Connecticut’s tolls controversy.
Myth: Federal law requires toll money collected on a highway be used on that highway.
This widespread myth has been said by Gov. Ned Lamont and many others. It was most recently said again by Connecticut Department of Transportation Commissioner, Joe Giulietti: “The federal government determines that, and that those funds must be spent on the roads (where the tolls would be).”, Middletown Press 1-5-20. During a radio interview last March, he said, “We cannot spend the toll money other than on those corridors and those highways that are generating those funds. That’s the Federal rule on it.”
Truth: It depends on which of the Federal DOT tolling programs is used. Only one has that restriction. Others allow using toll money for other forms of “transit projects” – trains, buses, etc. Similarly, highway tolls collected in one part of a state can be used in different parts of the same state. This is addressed on the Federal Highway Administration’s website’s questions and answers sections and was confirmed via telephone interviews and e-mails with two federal DOT officials. “If the public authority certifies annually that the tolled facility is being adequately maintained, toll revenue may be used to fund transit projects that are eligible for assistance under title 23, United States Code, which generally include the capital costs of transit projects eligible for assistance under chapter 53 of title 49, United States Code”, from the 16th question here – and question No. 9 here.
Early last year Gov. Lamont publicly stated: “Tolls will free up money to shorten the train ride from New Haven to Manhattan by five to ten minutes.” At a rail station media event in 2019, Commissioner Giulietti, a career train guy, publicly said: “Get me tolls, and …I’ll get you new rail cars.” Interestingly, at a media event in South Norwalk on January 6, he spoke about 132 new rail cars being purchased, evidently without tolls.
Their intent is clear -– impose driving taxes (a.k.a. “tolls”), call them “user fees,” and get money for train rides to and from Manhattan. Contrary to the widespread myth, federal law allows that. Worse yet, that’s without any proposals to raise train riders’ “user fees.” Myth = BUSTED!
Myth: The Federal DOT’s low interest loan program (TIFIA) requires tolls as a dedicated revenue source for paying back the loans.
Truth: Their requirement for a dedicated revenue source allows various sources. That is explained in the Federal TIFIA FAQ section’s 11th question – “Dedicated Revenue Sources -The TIFIA credit instrument shall be repayable, in whole or in part, from tolls, user fees or other dedicated revenue sources that also secure the senior project obligations.33 The USDOT interprets “dedicated revenue sources” to include such levies as tolls, user fees, special assessments, tax increment financing, and any portion of a tax or fee that produces revenues that are pledged for the purpose of retiring debt on the project. The Secretary may accept general obligation pledges or corporate promissory pledges and will determine the acceptability of other pledges or forms of collateral as dedicated revenue sources on a case-by-case basis.” Myth = BUSTED!
Myth: Lamont and his allies say “It’s either tolls or borrowing” and your children, grandchildren, and future generations will be stuck paying.
Truth: The proposed tolling plan includes borrowing. Tolls are infinite, they rarely go away. Borrowed money is finite, it gets paid back. Like a home mortgage, car or business loan they have an end. Our children and grandchildren will pay tolls if they are implemented. MYTH = BUSTED!
Myth: The Senate Republicans’ plan for funding transportation improvements includes “recklessly” “raiding” “draining” “looting” the rainy day fund. These derogatory terms have been used by Lamont, his spokesman Max Reiss, Connecticut House Speaker Joe Arisimowicz, and numerous toll advocates.
Truth: The Senate Republican plan includes use of a portion of the rainy day fund. “Uses a portion of excess funds in the BRF” (The Budget Reserve Fund, a/k/a rainy day fund.) Senate Republicans’ media release 11-14-19. Using those other terms is biased propaganda. Myth = BUSTED!
Myth: It’s a “user fee.”
Truth: It’s a tax on driving. Lamont and his allies shifted language from toll to user fee to sway public opinion. It’s a regressive tax that hurts low- and middle-income people more than high-income people, whether on just trucks or all vehicles. Myth = BUSTED!
Myth: Rhode Island will win the legal challenge to its truck-only tolls program. Lamont has said he very confident this will happen.
Truth: The outcome of a lawsuit is difficult to predict. Rhode Island’s recent appeal was rejected unanimously by a three judge panel. The case will continue in Federal court. Myth = BUSTED!
Myth: “All neighboring states or all in New England, or all on the eastern seaboard have tolls.”
Truth: No state in the U.S. has toll gantries as extensive as previously or currently proposed for Connecticut. Lamont’s latest proposal lowers that, but prior proposals of 121, 82, 53, 50, “no more than 50″ and 14 gantries remain available. Yes, some states have tolls. None are as extensive as proposed for our small state.
Neighboring Massachusetts has ten interstate highways and only one, the Mass Pike, has tolls. Rhode Island’s highway tolls for large trucks faces a legal challenge.
New York State has numerous highways and parkways with no tolls. Tolls are only on the NYS Thruway and some bridges. People often say, “I go to New York and pay tolls.” That frequently refers to going to New York City and depends on highways used. Maine and New Hampshire only have small portions of their highways with tolls and New Hampshire recently eliminated some tolls. Vermont has no tolls on its major highways. Myth = BUSTED!
Myth: Lamont and his allies repeatedly claim his plan is the only responsible or rational plan and the governor and Democratic lawmakers are the only ones with “ideas on the table to get Connecticut’s economy moving again.”
Truth: Those claims are just biased propaganda. Lamont claims to be open to different plans and ideas, but rejects anything without tolls. There are other ways to fund our infrastructure needs. One starting point is ending the misuse of the Special Transportation Fund and diversions of money from it. Myth = BUSTED!
Myth – Public opinion favors tolls.
Truths: For 11years, 2009-2020, public opinion surveys by Quinnipiac, Scared Heart, and news outlets show majorities opposed to tolls. In 2019 the huge quantity of written testimony submissions and phone calls to the Transportation Committee opposed to toll legislation crashed the computer system. Twenty eight Connecticut towns have passed “no tolls” resolutions. Social media and newspaper comments show far more opposed than in favor.
The NoTollsCT citizen group has over 111,000 No Tolls petition signatures with street protests all over the state and at the capitol. There is no “I want tolls petition.” and no “We want tolls” town resolutions passed. Myth = BUSTED!
Myth: On a radio show recently, Lamont rejected criticism that his budget passed last year diverted millions from the Special Transportation Fund (STF). He called it a myth. Other toll advocates have also denied the diversion occurred.
Truth: Last year’s budget bill documented a blockage of new vehicle sales tax dollars from going into the STF as they had been planned to do. That negated the prior bi-partisan budget agreement to transfer those dollars from the General Fund to the STF. Lamont and the single party controlled General Assembly reversed what was a bi-partisan agreement. Both last year’s and the prior budget’s documentation confirm that. News organizations have reported this.
Additionally, during a public meeting in Wilton last June, State Senator Will Haskell responded to a question about the diversion and admitted to the diversion and that he voted for Lamont’s budget which included it. A video of his comments is here. Myth = BUSTED!
Neil Tolhurst lives in New Hartford.