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Tolling Points

Economic Necessity Drives Connecticut Governor to Full Tolling Solution

By: 
Bill Cramer

A new tone was set in Connecticut last week, when newly-installed Governor Ned Lamont made highway tolling a centerpiece of his state’s economic recovery plan.

The week’s storyline was summed up in the headline the Hartford Courant wrote for a supportive letter to the editor from IBTTA Executive Director and CEO Patrick Jones.

“Tolls work,” the Courant said.

Even more important than the decision itself, Lamont’s gradual embrace of a full-scale tolling plan shows that good things happen when legislators weigh the evidence available to them and fearlessly embrace the option that best meets their constituents’ needs.

In his budget address, the Governor said, “I cannot fix this state unless I fix the transportation system. After 40 years of underinvesting in our transportation system, we cannot borrow our way out of this mess.” He also acknowledged that while “People in the state are getting squeezed and the middle class is getting hammered,” the state must look at other promising ways to pay to rebuild its infrastructure. One of those ways is implementing tolling on cars and trucks on major highways in the state.

The Numbers Told the Story

 

The Associated Press told the story of how Lamont’s approach to tolling evolved once he took office and got a good look at the financial options available to him. In the end, he picked the strategy that would bring his state an estimated $800 million per year in badly-needed revenue.

“Lamont had adamantly insisted during the campaign, and until this weekend, that he favored tools for interstate trucks only,” AP reported. Chief of Staff Ryan Drajewicz said the governor changed his mind “only after seeing what the numbers looked like”.

The bottom line: truck-only tolls would have raised $45 to $200 million per year in a state that needs $500 million per year for bridge repairs alone. Lamont had promised to borrow less money than his predecessor in the governor’s mansion, and also had to factor in declining gas tax revenues due to increasing vehicle fuel efficiency.

“If politics played a role in this we would have stayed on truck tolls only,” but “politics had nothing to do” the decision, Drajewicz told media. “This was the right decision based off of hard data. What the governor is in support of is the discussion, the back and forth with the legislature, to ensure we arrive at the best option for the state.”

Seizing the Opportunity

In his own mid-February op ed published in five Connecticut newspapers, Lamont pointed to the missed opportunities the state could recapture by getting its highway infrastructure in order.

“On paper, we have it all—access to world-class talent; equidistant between Boston and New York without the exceptionally high cost of living; vibrant cultural and educational institutions,” he wrote. “But our reputation in one area in particular precedes us, and not in a good way. Our economic development team must be prepared to answer the question that everyone who knows anything about Connecticut will ask: ‘What about the congestion on your highways?’”

That reality makes congestion more than an inconvenience, Lamont said—and a solution like tolling, he might have added, more than an optional extra.

“The crushing congestion we experience on I-95, I-91, I-84 and the Merritt Parkway, in particular, is a real challenge we must address and overcome if we are to maximize our economic development potential,” he stated. “Our proximity in mileage to New York City means nothing if it takes 90 minutes to get there from Stamford on the road, and over an hour by train. We need to not only maintain our aging transportation infrastructure, but it’s high time that we upgrade it, too.”

Initially, “as I learned about the issue, I indicated my support for tolling only tractor trailer trucks, as they do in Rhode Island,” Lamont conceded. But “our attorneys are pretty certain that if permitted, the tolling could only be done on specific bridges and the generated revenue would be reserved for those bridges, not for congestion pricing. Assuming our attorneys are correct, the truck-only option provides too little revenue, too slowly and too piecemeal to make a meaningful difference.”

A ’Powerful and Effective Tool’

Which led the governor to choose a more ambitious option that will secure the “building blocks of our economic future,” speeding up the upgrades that will clear the state’s transportation congestion.

In his letter to the Courant, IBTTA’s Pat Jones pointed out that tolling is “not a silver bullet,” but a “powerful and effective tool to build and maintain highways in areas with high traffic volumes like Connecticut and other northeastern states. And with widespread application of electronic tolling systems such as E-ZPass, there is no need for stopping and waiting. Instead, cars and trucks pay tolls at highway speeds, which reduces congestion, pollution and accidents.”

He added: “Governor Lamont correctly points out that, as we shift to more fuel-efficient vehicles, the fuel tax is not a sustainable funding mechanism. Tolling is a fairer way to charge all vehicles—including electric vehicles that pay no fuel tax —because users pay based on miles traveled, not fuel consumption.”

State-of-the-art technology is what makes it easier for a state like Connecticut to opt for tolling as a 21st century congestion solution. Attend IBTTA’s Annual Technology Summit, March 31-April 2, 2019 in Orlando, Florida, to learn more.