Three cheers for tolls
Critics of truck tolls in Connecticut are scoffing at the idea that tolls are a baby that anyone could love. But there’s plenty to celebrate about a proposal that will help Connecticut raise badly needed funds and build a transportation system for the future.
Here are three reasons why Connecticut residents and politicians should be shouting their support for the governor’s truck toll proposal.
Restore Connecticut’s investment in infrastructure
Connecticut’s highway and transit systems are deteriorating and inadequate. One reason is that the funding stream for infrastructure has diminished significantly. Back in 2000, Connecticut cut its gasoline tax from 32 cents per gallon to 25 cents per gallon. Adjusted for inflation, the gasoline tax is now worth just 17 cents per gallon in 2000 dollars (or just 53% of its value before 2000). Rising vehicle fuel efficiency also means that transportation revenue per mile driven also is declining. Doubling fuel efficiency effectively halves gasoline tax payments made by drivers, while newer electric vehicles do not even pay the gasoline taxes.
With construction and maintenance costs rising, and the revenue stream declining, it’s no wonder that it feels like the state doesn’t have the money it needs to invest in its transportation future — that funding has been slashed and needs to be restored.
Trucks driving through New England pay tolls in New York, Massachusetts, Maine, and New Hampshire, and soon will pay them in Rhode Island. Why should they drive across Connecticut for free?
Protect education and health care
Connecticut’s fight over tolls may seem to revolve just around transportation, but the struggle over tolls also has significant implications for education and health care.
Opponents of tolls, including the Connecticut Republican Party, are demanding instead that the state fork over the sales tax revenue on motor vehicle purchases to pay for transportation investments. Yet Connecticut’s sales tax is a general tax, not a special transportation levy. Sales taxes paid on purchases of baseball bats don’t go to the youth sports fund and the sales tax on bicycles doesn’t pay for bicycle lanes. Diverting sales taxes on cars to the transportation fund robs the Connecticut general budget of money that should properly be spent on other state programs, and ultimately would lead to cuts in education, health, and other government programs.
GOP leaders also propose to raid the state’s Rainy Day Fund, money set aside to help the state weather the next economic recession. Anyone who lived in the state during the Great Recession should recognize that draining the Rainy Day Fund to pay for transportation directly undermines the state’s future ability to pay, for example, local education aid to cities and towns during a recession.
Truck tolls, in other words, will help safeguard education and health care spending against efforts by the GOP and highway advocates to raid the general fund and the state’s financial reserves.
Advance public health, climate action, and transportation reform
Truck tolls make particular sense from a public health perspective. Connecticut’s air is badly polluted with the kind of particulate matter that impairs cognitive development, shortens life expectancy, and raises health care costs. Diesel-fueled trucks contribute significantly to this pollution. Truck tolls would serve as just one small mechanism to compensate for the “health toll” that heavily polluting trucks place on Connecticut citizens and the state budget. So-called “free market” advocates love to talk about fair competition between different industries. Here’s a chance to ask toxic trucks to play on a more level playing field.
And what about climate change? The climate news has been worsening — change is happening even more quickly than many anticipated. In just the past year, significant fires in California and Australia and flooding in the Midwest and Florida have given a glimpse of what might be coming with even greater intensity in the future. Connecticut urgently needs to shift its transportation system away from its dependence on fossil fuels. The governor’s CT2030 transportation spending plan, as commentators have pointed out here, here, and here, does not go nearly far enough to develop the kind of sustainable transportation system necessary to respond to the climate crisis. Much more funding is needed for transit and for pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure.
Critics of truck tolls, by contrast, seem to think that Connecticut can simply continue blithely on its way. They never mention air pollution. They don’t acknowledge climate change. Why should they be trusted to look out for anyone but the trucking industry?
It’s not hard to cheer for truck tolls in Connecticut. Indeed, it’s not even that complicated. The legislature should get it done.
Paul Sabin teaches energy and environmental history at Yale University and lives in New Haven.
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