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OP-ED | Breathing Easier: Will Tolls Offer Relief From Highway Congestion?

by Terry D. Cowgill | Jun 20, 2014 5:30am
(8) Comments | Commenting has expired
Posted to: Opinion, Taxes, Transportation

istock

An automatic highway toll


Advocates of bringing tolls back to Connecticut’s major highways think they’ve found a better way to approach the problem. And with so-called congestion pricing, they just might be right.

In the last few weeks, talk of congestion pricing to address rush-hour bottlenecks has been all the rage in Connecticut, with transportation officials from Florida, Washington, and California traveling to Hartford and Bridgeport to speak at panel forums about how such methods could not only raise revenues but relieve crowding on the state’s busiest highways during rush hour.

And some of those same officials appeared last week on WNPR’s Where We Live to make the same pitch. They agreed reinstating tolls would be a tough sell considering the state’s history.

State residents who are old enough to remember were horrified at the fiery tractor-trailer crash in 1983 that killed seven people at the Stratford toll plaza on the Connecticut Turnpike. That grisly accident, coupled with complicated formulas for federal highway funds the state received for the reconstruction of the collapsed Mianus River Bridge six months later, put considerable pressure on the state to abolish road tolls, which it did during the O’Neill administration two years after Stratford. At the time, the closing of the toll booths on I-95, the Wilbur Cross and Merritt parkways, and the Charter Oak Bridge cost the state $65 million a year in lost revenue.

So the gross receipts tax on petroleum products, also known as the hidden tax for its lack of transparency, essentially took the place of the tolls. Monies from the hidden tax were supposed to go into a special fund for transportation infrastructure improvement.

But that fund has been raided regularly by lawmakers looking for easy ways to plug budget gaps. Who’s to say the additional revenue generated by tolls would fare any differently? If lawmakers can find a foolproof way of creating a so-called “lock box” for revenue generated by new tolls, then I would be in favor of reinstating them. Here’s why:

With modern technology, the creation of a costly new bureaucracy to administer the tolls would be obviated. I’m sure state employee unions aren’t thrilled about it, but there would be no need to hire hundreds of toll collectors with union contracts, civil service status, and defined-benefit pensions.

The reason is actually quite simple. Modern tolls systems are capable of collecting money through in-vehicle transponders and overhead devices capable of reading license plates and other identifiers. Tolls can be automatically charged to credit or debit cards.

The fact that no toll booths will be needed — with their plazas, booths and change buckets — should appease those who worry about a repeat of Stratford. And if tolls are instituted, the absence of the booths will help motorists conserve fuel since there will be no need to stop and wait in line to pitch money into the buckets or get change from an attendant, as there was in the old days.

But perhaps the most compelling reason is to make life a little less maddening for motorists who sit in traffic or creep along on the state’s most heavily traveled corridors. I live among the bears and coyotes of the Northwest Corner, but I’m told by friends downstate that the situation on I-95 and the Merritt Parkway is quickly becoming intolerable.

Charging more for those who use the state’s busiest highways at the worst times creates incentives to travel at off-peak hours, to carpool, or to use alternative means of transportation. Of course, if the state really wants more motorists to use its commuter rail services, then it had better get off its fat butt and fix the shoreline rail infrastructure.

To wit, a chronically malfunctioning train bridge in Norwalk visited more delays on thousands of Metro-North commuters in Fairfield County earlier this month. Notwithstanding the bluster and outrage exhibited by Gov. Dannel P. Malloy and Sen. Richard Blumenthal, the bridge is owned by the state of Connecticut, so they have no one to blame but themselves, past governors, and the General Assembly for sticking their hands in the cookie jar of the transportation fund.

So there you have it. The reinstatement of tolls could help address the deterioration of our transportation infrastructure and make up for revenue shortfalls from the gross receipts tax as fuel-efficient vehicles command a greater share of the market. On the other hand, if the governor and lawmakers don’t reassure the public and address the matter of raiding the transportation fund, then they can forget it, as far as I’m concerned.

Contributing op-ed columnist Terry Cowgill lives in Lakeville, blogs at ctdevilsadvocate.com and is news editor of The Berkshire Record in Great Barrington, Mass. Follow him on Twitter @terrycowgill.

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(8) Comments

posted by: Noteworthy | June 20, 2014  9:55am

Congestion pricing works best if when paying, you get a dedicated lane like HOV. To simply pay a toll or a higher toll because you have to drive on the highway during rush hour will not promote anything except another tax falling heaviest on CT residents who are being brutalized already.

Further, there is zero confidence that the governor and the legislature will not find an emergency by which they’ll be able to raid the toll till. One need only look at the campaign promises of ending the practice of raiding the transportation fund and even the intelligence of raiding it as a starter to get a taste of the future. It will show up as a one-off, a temporary, a one time..and then it will become routine or the money they rip off will never be put back in because after living in this state for almost 20 years, it is clear the one guiding principal of our “leaders” is that they will not, can not ever, never cut spending or without gimmicks and higher taxes, match current spending with current revenues. They quite simply refuse to do it.

Support for congestion pricing or tolls? When pigs fly, in a dress, with a purse, high heels and lipstick. Plus blonde wig - shoulder length.

posted by: Bulldog1 | June 20, 2014  11:35am

Terry, You’ve got it:  Let’s see if the feckless political class will “address the deterioration of our transportation infrastructure” and thereby give us some glimmer of expectation for a better economic future for our State or just swim in chocolate milk.

posted by: GasGuy | June 20, 2014  3:15pm

Tolls are the way to go but ONLY is two things are done.

First all money in a lock box not able to be raided to fix budget issues.

Second, Lower the State Gas Tax and ELIMINATE the hidden Gross Receipts tax.

The state has always had enough money to fix transportation issues but spent the money on other issues.  That must stop.

Tolls - electronic tolls not gated like created the fire before will allow traffic to move and not create the problems of the past.

More important according to the CT DOT 55% of our current traffic is out of state commuters who pay zero taxes for using our roads as due to the high price of gasoline due to the two taxes they DO NOT purchase gas in our state.

This is common sense!

posted by: DrHunterSThompson | June 20, 2014  4:31pm

DrHunterSThompson

GasGuy,

Common now, senator smurfy says we need to increase the gas tax. He know better than you.

HST

posted by: art vandelay | June 20, 2014  6:28pm

art vandelay

@GasGuy, You hit the nail right on the head.

posted by: shinningstars122 | June 20, 2014  9:05pm

shinningstars122

@Gasguy hit the nail on the head.

CT can not continue with out road tolls on 84 and 95. I think we may not need to have one on 1-91, which we never did to begin with.

As much as folks have slammed the busway and bringing the MetroNorth to Hartford and Springfield these two pieces could actually reduce gridlock and change many people’s commuter habits.

I do totally disagree with the recent decision to abandon widening I-84 from Waterbury to the New York state line.

As it is simply short sighted and will not help to attract new distribution centers and transportation haulers to the state.

I mean there is traffic at Noon six days a week on that stretch.

posted by: art vandelay | June 21, 2014  12:13am

art vandelay

@shiningstars122,
I totally agree with you that I-84 needs to be widened from Waterbury to the NY Boarder.  Rt 11 from Colchester to New London also needs to be completed.  A connector from the “highway to nowhere” in Farmington to I-291 in Windsor is also a priority.  I-384 from East Hartford to Providence & Rt 7 from Danbury to I-95 is also critical.  I’d also like to see a bridge/tunnel from either New Haven or Bridgeport to Long Island.

posted by: dano860 | June 24, 2014  8:54am

All great points but even if they do the ‘fly through’ lanes they will still need gated cash lanes thereby requiring more bureaucracy.
Not everyone has or will have an electronic transmitter. People still don’t like the thought of the government having direct access to their accounts.
If you have been up through N.H. on Rt. 93 lately you know exactly what I’m saying.
A friend of mine commutes to Boston daily and she rejects a transmitter for the Mass Pike because they use the slow ‘green light’ fast pass lanes, that causes longer lines than the cash lines.
Oh ya, they will NEVER eliminate the gross receipts tax or lower the State tax per gallon OR create a strong enough ‘lock box’ to keep their grubby little over spending hands out of, or use it for the infrastructure as claimed. 
Just another pick of our pockets.