Letter to the editor submitted by Kimberly Fiorello, RTM District 7, Greenwich
Last Sunday, there were 22 people who came out in damp weather to hold No Tolls signs on the sidewalks in front of the YWCA. Cars, commercial vans, trucks, buses, and even a fire truck, honked, expressing their opposition to tolls as they passed by.
As a member of the RTM for District 7, I put up a poll on Nextdoor.com to try to gauge public opinion, and within days, I received 187 votes with 85% against tolls and 14% for tolls.
These responses from the community show there is opposition to tolls in Greenwich. In fact, opposition to tolls crosses political lines.
There will be another Greenwich No Tolls gathering on Saturday, May 4, from 10:00am to 12:00 noon, on the sidewalks by Exit 5 (by McDonald’s and Riverside Commons). Rain or shine. Tape “ No Tolls” to your umbrellas! Residents who are opposed to tolls can join friends and neighbors who are standing up and exercising their right to freedom of speech.
The state legislature will vote on tolls before the end of session on June 5 so now is the time for Greenwich residents to make their voices be heard. Below is a list of frequently asked questions I shared with fellow RTM members back when the RTM was discussing a No Tolls Resolution. I am sharing it now for anyone who is interested to know more about tolls.
RTM District 7
Which towns have passed No Tolls Resolutions?
Our neighbors in Stamford passed a No Tolls Resolution on on March 4, 2019. These 17 other towns that have passed No Tolls Resolutions — Enfield, Sherman, Stamford, Trumbull, Montville, Suffield, Vernon, Lisbon, Shelton, Wolcott, Ansonia, Wallingford, Branford, Cheshire, Middletown, Norwich, and Berlin — that have similar text to the one attempted in Greenwich.
Why are these No Tolls resolutions happening now?
The CT state legislature will adjourn on June 5, 2019. The vote on tolls will happen within weeks. If we want to make our voices be heard in Hartford, the time is now.
What do we know about the Toll bills in Hartford?
Our State Senator Alex Bergstein submitted the first tolls bill. Right now, there are THREE bills before the Legislature — SB423, HB7202, and HB7280. They are identical in spirit — put up tolls for more revenue — but each one is thin on details, like how many gantries, which roads exactly, and what toll prices will be charged. They also differ slightly in whether it creates a separate Tolls Authority or if tolls will fall under the existing DOT, or whether legislators have to approve tolling hikes or if unelected administrators can raise toll prices without a vote from the legislature.
Bottomline — the legislature is planning to vote on tolls WITHOUT a detailed plan. Vote First, Details Later. Some of our legislators are shirking their responsibility of writing detailed legislation. Instead, they want to vote for the spirit of an idea and let unelected administrators decide the details. But, it’s the details that matter to us, the people.
But don’t we need to do tolls? We need the money, right? How do we pay for our roads now?
We currently have a program in place to pay for our transportation infrastructure needs via the Special Transportation Fund, STF, which collects up to about $300-400M per year, partly from the gas tax (7th highest in the US), car registration fees, and partly from the car sales tax. In addition, CT receives about $700M per year from Federal govt. That’s $1BN+ per year in the STF.
But we need more $$ now — billions more — to make major infrastructure improvements, right? If we don’t do tolls, is there another option?
“Prioritize Progress” is a plan that calls for reserving a portion of the state’s General Obligation Bonds, about $700M, for prioritized infrastructure projects. The plan stays within the state’s current bonding caps; there will NOT be more bonding. And it calls for preserving the existing $800M worth of Special Tax Obligations issued by the state and dedicated to road and bridge repair under the Transportation Bonding Program.
What does this all mean?
It means there is already a funding mechanism in place to obtain more money for infrastructure needs without imposing tolls. Prioritize Progress ($700M) + existing Special Tax Obligation bonds ($800M) + STF ($3-400M) + Fed ($700M) = raises more than $2BN per year for prioritized infrastructure projects. PRIORITIZE being the key word. We can have reliable, sustainable revenue for funding for transportation infrastructure maintenance and investments without tolls.
Wait, but isn’t the Special Transportation Fund going bankrupt soon?
The STF will NOT be bankrupt, if it is NOT raided. If left alone, money will accrue in the STF and it will be fully funded. Gov Lamont’s budget diverts money away from the STF and uses it for other state funding, forcing it become underfunded. (Note: His budget uses tolls to replenish the STF, but tolls does not raise as much as Prioritize Progress can.)
Can a politician do that? Isn’t there a lockbox on the STF?
Yes. In fact, there has always been a statutory lockbox on the STF, but the legislators in power have long ignored it. So last November, the voters approved a CONSTITUTIONAL lockbox on the STF. However, the Constitutional lockbox is only effective once the money gets into the STF, and the legislature and governor can legally divert money destined for the STF lockbox before the money REACHES the lockbox. Lamont’s proposed budget does exactly this. To replace the money originally earmarked for the STF, the governor’s budget proposes tolls.
Why do some politicians want tolls so passionately?
Tolls is an attractive thing for a politician. It is a NEW REVENUE STREAM. It’s money that wasn’t there before. The state can borrow money against this new revenue stream.
State Senator Alex Bergstein has said she believes private-sector support for a transportation rebuild is huge and CT could “leverage” huge private dollars. This seems to mean that she expects tolls to allow the state to borrow substantial amounts of money in excess of the $2BN general obligation bond cap now in effect.
How much more could the state borrow? Possibly $7 to $9 of private-sector money for every $1 the state pledges, Bergstein said. At $1BN of projected annual toll revenue, that is another $7BN to $9BN in state debt! And since this additional debt would be owed by the State, it toll revenues fall short of projections, the State would either have to pay off that debt or raise toll prices to service that debt. Pennsylvania did something similar, and found that toll revenues did not meet the expected levels. You can read about that here:
What about Lamont’s lauded “debt diet” which is limiting us to about $1.2BN in bonding per year? It’s good we are borrowing less, right?
The “debt diet” is reducing the General Obligation Bonds the state issues, currently capped at about $2BN. But if, for example, the plan is to borrow money from private investors to build toll gates, that’s still DEBT that CT owes — it’s just “revenue bond” debt that is NOT counted towards the $1.2BN cap of the debt diet!
Also, the “debt diet” includes more taxes at the state and local level and new spending, so only the higher taxes proposed by the governor make the amount of debt stop increasing.
For example, Lamont’s budget calls for:
- Transferring of Teacher Pension costs to the towns, that will increase our property taxes
- Expansion of the State Sales Tax to include services, like legal, real estate, accounting, hair salons, sports instruction, and others
- New CT State Paid Family Medical Leave that will increase payroll taxes for CT employers
What about making out-of-state drivers pay for using our roads?
Out-of-state drivers do NOT use our roads for free. We get a larger chunk of federal transportation dollars because we do not have tolls. Meaning, CT is getting a larger share of the federal pie vs NY or MA, so indirectly out-of-state drivers are paying us.
They also pay CT gas tax when they fuel up in CT.
Let’s get MORE from out-of-state drivers…
OK, then increase the gas tax. It’s easier and faster than putting up electronic toll gantries.
Putting up tolls does have its costs, right?
- We will need an administrative body to regulate and oversee tolls. That’s more state jobs.
- It will cost about $350M to install the tolls over the next few years. That’s a cost born 100% by CT taxpayers.
- The annual maintenance cost of the tolls is about $100M. That’s also 100% paid by CT taxpayers.
Still, we can get 30% or 40% of toll revenue paid by out-of-state drivers, can’t we?
Recently, at the RTM joint Committee meeting, Sen. Bernstein said 50%.
And collecting tolls from out-of-state drivers is a challenge. The following link discusses how Massachusetts is having trouble doing this.
The brunt of the tolls will be paid by the already overtaxed CT residents and disproportionately by those us living in Fairfield County, who use I-95 and the Merritt daily.
How much will the tolls be, do we know?
The range that’s been talked about is from 4 cents per mile to as high as 11 cents per mile. On the high end, driving from Greenwich to Darien, 10 miles away, that’s $1.10 per one-way. Driving up to New Haven, 41 miles away, that’s $4.51 per one-way. Although this may not seem like much for each individual trip, for people who make these trips frequently the cost will add up quickly.
The bigger problem is that electronic congestion pricing really means the pricing will fluctuate throughout the day, depending on the traffic. Also, unelected administrators may be able to easily hike the prices as they see fit. We won’t know what we are paying until we get our monthly E-Z Pass bill.
Will we see some of the toll money we pay come back to fix our roads here?
According to the email from Peter Tesei and the Western Connecticut Regional Council of Governments, forwarded to us by Alexis Voulgaris on March 29, very little of the money raised from tolls will be spent on roads in the Stamford-Norwalk area. So the vast majority of the tolls paid by Greenwich residents will be spent on roads and bridges in other parts of the state.
Also, there is the example of our state income tax. Greenwich is one of the top 10 contributors to state income tax revenues, but we get zero dollars back for our schools.
How many tolls are we talking about, again, and on what roads?
We are talking about 53 to 82 toll gantries to raise about $800M to $1BN per year. They would be up every 6.6 miles on 95, 91, 84, and the Merritt and possibly on more roads.
And why can’t we do border tolls again?
We cannot do border tolls where we capture drivers crossing the border because of the deal we have with the Federal govt. We removed our border tolls in the late 1980s and in return, we got more Federal $$ than our neighboring states.