Warner: The Republican Dilemma with Tolls

Letter to the editor from Mike Warner, Past Chair, RTM Finance Committee

Town Republicans are focused and organized in their efforts to defeat “smart tolls”, the State’s way to finance the modernization of its deteriorating infrastructure.

“No Tolls” signs are appearing everywhere, even at Exit #5, supporters of the “No Tolls” effort were shouting to passing motorist to “Honk if you’re against tolls.”

Without smart tolls, the only alternative is for the State to borrow the enormous sums needed to upgrade its out-of-date roads and bridges.

One reason many Greenwich “no tolls” Republicans are protesting now is because they see “no tolls” as a winning “wedge issue” in November. Their mantra will be, “No new taxes!” implying, of course, that no one will need to pay for updating and maintaining our infrastructure, the state just needs to borrow more and spend more and let someone else pay for it.

This is a fundamental miscalculation, however. Republicans will certainly be asked how huge borrowing for its infrastructure will also cover the high maintenance costs needed to keep those roads and bridges up to date. Are they recommending the state borrow even more to fix potholes?

Republicans who like to think of themselves as the “adults in the room” on financial issues, may squirm in November when they are asked to reconcile their pro-borrowing position for State infrastructure financing, with their staunch “pay as you go,” restrictive borrowing policy that has been starving our town’s public schools for decades, with the average Greenwich school built in 1953.

Those same Republicans who ask us to “Honk if you’re against tolls!” even forget their own history of how large infrastructure projects actually get financed.

Back in the 1950’s, it was Republican President Eisenhower who built our Interstate Highway system. Here was a conservative President, Eisenhower funding on a grand scale, a network of “superhighways”, that knit our nation together, resulting in enormous economic activity and growth, and producing decades of prosperity and convenience for our citizens.

But this project wasn’t free. Republicans insisted that citizens pay for it, with a national gas tax, and citizens willingly paid that tax because what they received in return was an incalculable benefit. There was no honking then against funding a “government program” or political partisans shouting at intersections, “No gas tax!” Citizens understood the need for important capital improvements and were willing to pay for it.

The same is true for the great bridges that connect Manhattan and Long Island to the U.S. mainland. Today we think nothing of paying a bridge toll to cross Long Island Sound, a toll that can deliver us to LaGuardia Airport, sometimes in as little as 35 minutes. Would those same no-toll activists at Exit #5 ask us to “honk” against the tolls that funded the construction of those bridges? (and the continued maintenance of those bridges)

Will Connecticut voters fall for the same “something for nothing” pitch in November that recently worked for Republicans in Washington and for Donald Trump? We’ll see. The problem for Republican’s is that voters, especially Greenwich voters can see what our neighboring states have successfully accomplished with their smart tolls, displaying wide modern highways as we speed through their toll gantry’s. Voters also know that 40% of the drivers on Route I-95 are from out-of-state and it’s those drivers who will absorb 40% of the cost of our road and rail improvements as they speed under our toll gantries as well.

In November voters will likely ask themselves two fundamental questions, first, who really are the “adults in the room” on financial management issues? And second, voters will ask, how long would it take to drive from Greenwich to LGA without those great bridges?

Mike Warner
Past Chair, RTM Finance Committee