LETTER: Beware of Politicians Touting Connecticut Tolls

Letter to the editor submitted by Len Suzio, former State Senator (R-District 13) and vice-chair of the Transportation Committee

On April 8 and April 10, the Lamont administration drove two fatal daggers into their own pro-tolls arguments. On the first date, state Department of Transportation officials reduced the target for infrastructure spending by billions of dollars, and on the second date Governor Lamont himself announced he expects billions in increased federal subsidies for improvements to our transportation system.

The argument for tolls rests on a simple proposition: fixing transportation in Connecticut requires far more money than current revenue streams provide. Underlying this statement are three assumptions: (1) former Governor Malloy’s unvetted, record-breaking $100 billion infrastructure “aspirational list” (to use Democrat Senator Leone’s description) represents the needed spending; (2) the so-called “disappearing” (Governor Lamont’s words) motor fuels tax collections are in fact disappearing; and (3) no additional financial assistance can be expected from the federal government, which historically had subsidized up to 80% of transportation infrastructure spending.

Official data on the Department of Revenue Services website belie the “disappearing” fuel tax argument. Official government records show motor fuel taxes are not “disappearing”, but in fact exhibit a modest upward long-term trend ($650 million in FYE 2005 and $822 million in FYE 2018).

Now, at two events–one on April 8 and the other on April 10–the Lamont administration has fatally undermined the other two premises, by effectively admitting that the infrastructure spending was grossly inflated and the federal aid grossly underestimated. Those confessions should end the tolls debate.

If tolls are passed now, clearly their purpose will be to tax Connecticut families for General Fund spending that Democrats refuse to cut.

The $100 billion Malloy transportation infrastructure spending proposal, although never reviewed by the legislature, has long been the driving force behind the spectacular spending toll proponents argue is necessary to repair our transportation system. Anyone reading the proposal would recognize it contained hugely inflated costs, but real numbers don’t matter to politicians touting tolls.

From their political point of view, the huge spending deficits set up a “Don’t blame me – we have no choice” argument for tolls. The legislature never vetted the wild spending proposal because it suited the needs of politicians who wanted political cover to pass an unpopular new tax.

On April 8, during the Finance Committee Transportation Bonding Sub-Committee meeting, the DOT Commissioner and his staff demolished Governor Malloy’s pie-in-the-sky infrastructure spending that justified projected STF deficits. Responding to a question about how much infrastructure spending was needed to get our transportation systems back in shape, the Commissioner and his staff stated that $2 billion annual infrastructure spending would be “the best-case scenario to achieve a state of good repair.”

Spending $2 billion a year would represent a 40% cut to Malloy’s $100 billion 30-year wish list. The implications for the projected Special Transportation Fund deficit are monumental, and welcome relief to taxpayers.

And the good news of an enormous spending reduction in the cost of restoring Connecticut’s transportation system was further complemented by the Governor’s announcement on April 10 that he had a very successful meeting with Secretary of the U. S. Department of Transportation, Elaine Chao. The Governor was eager to share the good news that a new federal transportation system funding program means billions of dollars of transportation infrastructure spending will be eligible for an 80% federal subsidy.

This has monumental implications for the tolls debate, since all the forecasted STF deficits were predicated on zero increases in federal subsidies. In other words, the STF deficits assumed all increased transportation infrastructure spending would be paid 100% by Connecticut taxpayers. It doesn’t take a degree in economics to understand that federal subsidies of as much as $800 million for every $1 billion of state infrastructure spending will reduce the financial burden on Connecticut by a whopping amount.

The combination of billions of dollars of reduced infrastructure spending necessary to get our transportation system into a state of good repair with the restoration of billions of dollars of traditional federal subsidies will save our state far more than the projected revenues from any toll scenario.

The Lamont administration has themselves proven that there is no “need” for tolls to pay for necessary transportation infrastructure spending. If tolls are passed, the real reason will be to hit Connecticut taxpayers with another massive tax disguised as an unavoidable necessity. But the real reason will be to divert resources to the General Fund to pay for the legislature’s failure to cut spending.

Trust the numbers, not the rhetoric: We don’t need tolls, and the governor just demonstrated it—even if he won’t accept the facts he himself has presented.

Len Suzio
Former State Senator (R-District 13) and vice-chair of the Transportation Committee