Blankley: Tolls are Not the Solution to Our Infrastructure Needs

John Blankley, former member of the BET and recent Democratic candidate for State Treasurer

Tolls are a tax and we all know it. We don’t like more taxes but we know that we need to maintain our infrastructure. So the only question is what is the fairest and more equitable way to pay for it? In my view roads and rail are responsibilities for all of us whether we use them or not. They keep the lifeblood of commerce flowing and that’s to all our benefit. Tolls penalize the little man and businesses and paradoxically will be a further drag on economic growth! That’s counter productive and it’s regressive taxation. Furthermore it’s unfair to make one section of society pay for the legacy problem caused by successive administrations who raided the transportation fund to cover the state’s budget deficits.

And when I hear the siren song of getting all those free-loading out-of-staters to pay a share of our roads’ upkeep (apparently 30% of toll receipts will come from that source) I think of the 70% that will come from in-state. Add construction and administrative costs, the loss of federal funding and the extra wear and tear on local roads as traffic avoids the highways and tolls become much less attractive.

Last year’s bipartisan budget fix moved in the right direction, allocating gas taxes, motor vehicle registration and sales tax receipts among other sources to a transportation “lock box.” That will keep us going until 2023, and if we prioritize portions of state bonding thereafter we can see a way to pay for our infrastructure needs without tolls. As for ideas such an infrastructure bank and public/private partnerships, the experience of other states should make us hesitate before allowing commercial interests into our public finances.

But what are the infrastructure needs exactly? It makes no sense to spend $1.5 billion on the Walk Bridge (a swing bridge) in Norwalk when we can make it a fixed bridge and spend a more modest $600 million. We can do without the $7.6 billion Rte 8 “Mixmaster” interchange with I-84 in Waterbury and spend $200 million for simple renovation instead. Then we come to our previous Governor’s $100 billion over 30 years, now politely referred to as “aspirational,” the key feature of which was the idea for I-95: “where it’s three lanes make it four and where it’s two, make it three.” The lack of sheer physical space and the huge hurdle of eminent domain make that a pipe dream.

So if anyone thought that tolls would relieve congestion in the I-95 corridor, think again. The way to do that is to create roll-on, roll-off port facilities in Bridgeport and New Haven to take some of the truck traffic off the roads and to wait patiently for the advent of autonomous vehicles. The plans for rail will help too; we need to hear more about the so-called 30-30-30 plan for links between Hartford, New Haven and NYC. Incidentally tolls won’t pay for rail renewal – the feds insist that toll money be used only for roads otherwise they will claw back previous allocations.

The RTM will, rightly in my view, consider a sense of the meeting resolution at its next meeting and I hope fervently that it will vote against tolls. There is a better way!

John Blankley, former member of the BET and recent Democratic candidate for State Treasurer