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Tolling Points

Two-Volume History Shows Connecticut's Past Reliance on Tolls

By: 
Bill Cramer

One way to get some perspective on the challenges facing transportation, and the role of tolling in solving them, is to write a two-volume history of a state transportation system that goes all the way back to the colonial era.

In Connecticut, historian and transportation engineer Richard DeLuca has done exactly that. And the road he travelled to complete Post Roads & Iron Horses: Transportation in Connecticut from Colonial Times to the Age of Steam led to some valuable lessons for the state administration of Governor Ned Lamont as he assembles funding for his state’s historic LET’S GO CT highway infrastructure program.

“Tolls have been used to pay for transportation improvements in Connecticut since colonial times and the early days of nationhood, beginning with ferries in the 1630s, bridges in the 1760s, and highways in the 1790s,” DeLuca wrote over the summer, in an opinion piece for the Connecticut Mirror. “Tolls were seen then, as now, as the fairest way to fund any transportation project since only those individuals who use a given facility —be it ferry, bridge or highway— are made to pay for its construction and maintenance.”

Tolling in Connecticut: What’s New Is Old

At the core of DeLuca’s argument is the understanding that Connecticut needed tolls before, and it certainly needs them now.

When LET’S GO CT was first presented to the state legislature in February 2015 by then-governor Dannel Malloy, it laid out “a bold plan for improving each of the state’s multi-modal transportation systems—highways and bridges, rail and bus, air and water,” he wrote. The plan anticipated $100 billion in funding requirements over a 30-year span, including $66 billion to maintain the existing system. When a public-private finance panel looked at how to meet the need, it called for a combination of gas taxes and electronic tolling, bolstered by a constitutional amendment to protect all transportation revenues.

DeLuca’s central point in his writing is that there’s nothing new in identifying user finance as a reliable source of state transportation revenue. Connecticut first introduced driver and vehicle registration fees in 1907. It used tolls to fund modern highway bridges until 1923. It reintroduced them with the development of the first controlled-access freeways in the 1930s, and the tolls were continued when a state-funded portion of the Connecticut Turnpike was transferred to the federal government under the 1956 Interstate Highway Act.

A major, tragic collision in 1986 brought that early era of tolling to a close, and Connecticut increased its gas taxes to fill the financing gap. But “as with the current toll issue, the increase in gas taxes soon became a political football, and by the late 1990s, the state had acquiesced to public pressure, and reduced the gas tax by 14 cents a gallon, without replacing the income needed to fund the state’s ongoing transportation commitments,” DeLuca recalls. “As a result, projects scheduled for the early 2000s were cancelled or postponed.”

A generation later, with Gov. Lamont supporting a return to user financing, “the toll question is both simple and straightforward,” DeLuca writes. “History tells us that removing tolls from Connecticut highways and bridges in the 1980s was a financial mistake, as was the lowering of the gasoline tax in the 1990s.”

Bipartisan Support for Transportation Investment

While DeLuca’s historical lens is a great way to look at the decisions and opportunities in Connecticut’s immediate future, Gov. Lamont is also getting some high-powered encouragement to move forward.

In July, Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker (R) and Rhode Island Governor Gina Raimondo (D) crossed party lines when they both encouraged Lamont to accelerate Connecticut’s investment in transportation infrastructure. During their first tri-state summit in mid-July, the three governors “discussed collaborative purchasing for renewable energy, job training, data-sharing, and transportation-related pollution issues,” the Mirror reported at the time. And tolling took its place on that list of forward-looking issues and concerns.

“We have the tolls, we have the revenue, we have been sued,” Raimondo said. But “in a couple of years from now the controversy will have gone away, but the lasting impact of better infrastructure will be there for decades.”

Baker said the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority had never invested more than $400 million per year in system upgrades, but was now in its third fiscal year of putting in more than $1 billion. While users don’t like the fare increases behind that investment, “we have a lot of catching up to do”, he said—and public support for the investments is on the rise.

The Mirror also carried an opinion piece by Jason Wall, CEO of A-to-B USA, who stressed the evolution tolling has undergone since it last made an appearance in Connecticut—from a barrier across a road to an all-electronic mobility service.

As customers, we willingly invest in the telecommunications industry to deliver greater coverage and faster, more reliable technology,” he wrote, “because we all know that feeling of frustration when Spotify won’t load, or emails won’t send. As road users, we share a similar responsibility to invest in transportation solutions that can generate revenue, improve road safety and decrease congestion, and that will in turn attract new business to the state, offer access to new jobs and foster innovation.”

Gov. Lamont and the state legislature in Connecticut continue to look for ways to come to an agreement on tolling, while 34 states in the U.S. continue to expand their proven tolled facilities.

Become an advocate for an efficient, well-financed highway system. Download your copy of IBTTA’s Grassroots Tool Kit today.

Newsletter publish date: 
Tuesday, October 15, 2019 - 11:45

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