February 12, 2018

Lawmakers must be transparent on tolls

Greg Bordonaro Editor

Typically I shy away from writing about the same topic two weeks in a row, but the debate over tolls is so important to Connecticut's future that it's worth the extra ink.

Last week, I argued toll locations will be key to the debate over whether or not Connecticut should once again start charging motorists for using the state's roads and highways. I still stand by that notion, but after another full week of debate on the issue, there's a larger point to be made.

It's that transparency in general — on toll locations, costs, type and frequency — will be key to the debate.

That means lawmakers have an obligation to propose a bill filled with specifics rather than generalities. Residents and businesses have a right to know exactly how many tolls policymakers are considering, where they will be located and how much they will cost.

The fear is that Democratic lawmakers could try to jam through legislation that gives state government tolling authority with few or no constraints. Under that scenario, Connecticut residents will likely pay dearly years from now.

The fact that border tolls most likely are not legally feasible and that past studies have recommended putting tolls throughout state highways and roads, means policymakers who favor tolls have ambitions to roll them out in a big way. No legislation should pass the House or Senate without a full articulation of those plans.

Here's the bottom line: Most likely tolls won't pass in a heated election year in which the governor's seat and all House and Senate seats are up for grabs.

Frankly, that's a good thing because the next administration should make the call on this issue. Gov. Dannel P. Malloy had nearly two terms to throw his full support behind tolls, but he lacked the political courage to do so. Allowing him to do it as a lame-duck governor, while also tying the hands of his successor, is the wrong move.

Also, Malloy, like many governors in their final years in office, is in a legacy-building mode and he'd love to find a funding source for his ambitious 30-year, $100-billion transportation investment program. Again, his successor should make the call on whether the state needs to invest that much money on roads, highways, bridges and public transportation.

Connecticut, however, does have a transportation funding issue that must be addressed. It's a situation that will likely be exacerbated in the future as drivers use fewer gas-powered vehicles (the gas tax is the primary funder of the state's Special Transportation Fund).

And the business community has said that transportation is a critical issue. Companies would like to see less congestion on our highways, particularly in New Haven and Fairfield counties, so that their employees and goods can be moved more efficiently. In fact, it wouldn't be surprising if the Commission on Fiscal Stability and Economic Growth — which was empanelled last year and is made up of top CEOs and business executives — recommends the adoption of tolls and an increase in the gas tax.

But let's remember, tolls are essentially a tax on lower- and middle-class residents, some of whom have the least ability to pay. While Connecticut is a high-cost state for businesses and wealthy individuals, it is even more financially challenging for average earning individuals and families.

Most importantly, before lawmakers are essentially allowed to adopt another major tax hike, they must first be held accountable on state spending. Yes, Malloy deserves credit for reducing the size of the state workforce and constraining state spending increases, but he hasn't gone far enough in tackling the true cost drivers of state government: union pay and benefits and long-term pension and debt obligations.

Once those tough issues are addressed in a more comprehensive way, the toll debate will be more palatable to the electorate.

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