Jim Cameron: The Fairest (and Least Popular) Way To Pay for Roads

By Jim Cameron

Back in April I wrote about the challenge we face to pay for Gov. Malloy’s $100 billion transportation plan. And I expressed sympathy for his bipartisan, blue-ribbon panel tasked with coming up with funding alternatives, the Transportation Finance Panel.

To be honest, I think that panel may be on a fool’s errand. They’re trying to pay for a wish list of projects not of their making and many of which may not be necessary let alone affordable. Maybe we only need $50 billion. But it’s not their mandate to question our “transportation Governor.” Someone else will have to do the “vetting.”

But even as the Finance Panel does its work, exploring all manner of funding options, they are being second-guessed by politicians and public alike.

How about tolls? Too expensive… they’ll slow traffic… and don’t forget those flaming truck crashes at toll barriers! (Not true… no they won’t… and there won’t be toll barriers).

Gas tax? Unfair… out-of-state motorists won’t pay… improved gas mileage means dwindling revenue. (Totally fair… maybe so… and absolutely correct).

nhigh speed toll collectionWhich brings us to what would seem to be the fairest, most equitable fund raising mechanism for paying for our roads, but which brought a bipartisan crap-storm of response when suggested: a mileage tax, or VMT (vehicle miles traveled) tax.

The concept is simple: have each motorist pay a tax for the number of miles he/she drives each year. The data could be collected electronically by GPS or with an odometer check when you get your annual emissions inspection. You drive more, you pay more… whether you drive on I-95 or back-country roads. Take mass transit, you’d drive less and pay less.

The VMT idea was discussed at the Finance Panel’s July 29th meeting, and the public and political reaction was immediate and universally negative.

Senate Majority Leader Bob Duff (D-Norwalk) called it “unproven,” despite successful trials in the Netherlands and Oregon and VMT’s endorsement by the US Government Accountability Office.

Republican St Senator Toni Boucher calls VMT nonsensical and an invasion of privacy, though testimony proved both claims wrong.

Face it: nobody likes a tax that they have to pay. Tax the other guy… the trucker, the out-of-state driver, the real estate transferor… but don’t tax me!

Driving a car is not free. Paying for gasoline is only part of the cost and even Connecticut’s relatively high gas tax comes nowhere near to paying for upkeep of our roads. Our deteriorating roads are a hidden toll as we pay for car repairs.

The Transportation Finance Panel will find there is no easy or popular solution to paying for the Governor’s $100 billion untested and unattainable wish list of projects. Whatever they recommend, citizens will scream bloody murder and their lawmakers will vote it down.

But shame on reactionaries in Hartford for calling the VMT, or any funding alternative, “dead on arrival.” Let’s at least let the Finance Panel do its diligence before saying they have wasted their time.

Jim CameronJIM CAMERON is founder of the Commuter Action Group. A resident of Darien for 24 years and a member of the Darien RTM, Jim previously served as chairman of the CT Rail Commuter Council. The opinions expressed in this column are his alone. See the full collection of his Talking Transportation columns. You can reach Jim at CommuterActionGroup@gmail.com.

  • John Black

    First thing you left out was how do you collect this driving tax from out of state drivers? Since the majority of major roadways in CT are part of the Interstate Highway system, and that is what requires the most improvement, why would a driver who drives say from Weston to Danbury and never touches an interstate have to pay for 95? At the same time the truck driver who drives his rig between NYC and Boston three times a week in 95 pays nothing? Your logic sounds about as faulty as Malloys impossible $100 billion dollar “transportation” initiative. $100 billion dollars for a state of 3.5 million people. Did Malloy even do the division to figure how much each of us would have to pay? Try putting a toll on 95 – CT doesn’t own 95 the federal government does. The idea is like trying to rent a house you don’t own. Unless you get approval from congress AND you are effecting traffic flow or promoting energy efficiency – you can’t toll an interstate highway.
    I guess Malloy can toll The Merritt and maybe even Main Streets in each town to raise his $100 billion. I’d have to use the proverbial “dead on arrival” for the state to be able to pay for this fantasy.