In two previous columns, I have argued that it is necessary to reinstitute tolls on some Connecticut highways. These articles advocated placing tolls exactly where they were prior to eliminating them back in the 1980s, and potentially placing toll gantries near the state borders on Interstate 84. I further suggested establishing specific highway authorities in order to avoid the legislature from being able to plunder the money derived.
Well, I was completely naïve. You would think that, having studied Connecticut politics for decades, I would have known that a Democrat-led state government would never, ever consider a moderate response; that the State of Connecticut would proudly want to be the nation’s leader in establishing the very most over-the-top, expensive and populace-fleecing scheme possible. We are about to become the grand “progressive” experiment that every other state can use to see just how deeply this new tax regime can drill into their population’s incomes.
On April 10th, the Lamont administration filled in a few significant details. Apparently they intend to only erect “no more than 50” toll gantries, only every “six or seven miles” on the entire length of I-95, I-91, I-84 and CT Route 15, and only charge around $04.4 per mile. This, they say, is the only way to yield the annual $800 million needed to get our roads in shape and properly maintained.
Now this column will cover two subjects: why the mounting backlash to establishing this Supertoll scheme and what this opens us up to.
Why such a backlash? Is it just because people don’t like taxes? Well, certainly that is one reason. Who wants to pay for something they used to get for free? Nothing is free, of course, but nothing connects the dots between building and maintaining highways and actually paying for that work like tolls. Gas taxes are built into the price of fuel, bonding is done out of sight of the average voter, and mileage taxes on trucks are inevitably built into the price of everything that moves.
There is another factor driving the No Tolls protests: the people of Connecticut are finally seeing right before their eyes that we are no longer getting our money’s worth from the State of Connecticut. People are finally seeing that there is no effort whatsoever being made anywhere in state government to actually do what we have all been told we must do: Do More With Less. That is not the Connecticut way.
The 2017 Annual Highway Report by the Reason Foundation recently released ranks Connecticut as the highest in the nation in “administrative costs.” They found that our state government hold the dubious distinction of spending $99,417 per mile for administrative costs, nine times the national average of $10,864. We rank 44th of 50 in Deficient Bridges. Our state highway system is the 6th smallest in the nation, but, by golly, we beat all of them in spending on state bureaucracy!
So trying to sell Connecticut taxpayers that the entire dilapidated highway mess is only a revenue problem — and not a spending and inefficient government problem — is not as easy as it used to be. And while I still think that specific, targeted tolls to maintain specific, targeted roadways operated by specific entities whose only function is to maintain these roads is necessary, I have certainly learned my lesson about blanket, everywhere-you-look tolls.
Which brings us to the second point: most people no longer have any confidence that we are being told the whole truth. What we are being sold as a final solution is actually nothing but the beginning of the story. One obvious example: candidate Ned Lamont told us his plans for tolls only included trucks. But he hadn’t been in office for more than a couple of weeks before Governor Ned Lamont said, “Golly gee, I didn’t know how bad things were.” Really?
Anyone with more than the merest inkling of how much money is being spent annually on our roads could not possibly have bought into this fiction that just tolling those mean ol’ icky trucks (that, by the way, transported about every single thing you own) was sufficient. They already pay millions in road use and fuel taxes, and that wasn’t enough then.
The even sadder truth is that this $.04.4 per mile that supposedly will net $800M is only the beginning. Soon enough it will be raised, and then we will be told again: “Golly gee, the problem is worse than we thought.” This happened with the Hartford Rail Line, a project that started at $450M and ended up around $650 million. It’s happening right here in Wallingford with the Center Street bridge that is now a million dollars over budget and a year late.
We have swallowed so many of these half-truths that we cannot handle one more whopper. And 50 toll gantries is a whopper, or “a bridge too far,” pun very much intended.
Stephen Knight is a former Wallingford town councilor.