Push past Republican opposition and adopt toll plan
Democrats in the state legislature need to remember a couple of things.
First, in 2020 Republicans will attack them on the issue of tolls whether or not the Democratic majority sanctions imposition of tolls on state highways this session.
Secondly, Democrats will never enjoy greater political cover to do what needs to be done — setting up a tolling system so that the state can start tapping out-of-state drivers to help fix its highways — than they do right now.
State Republicans have made the calculation that tolling is the wedge issue they can use to try to rebuild the party after facing steep losses in the 2018 state campaign. Politically, it makes sense. If Democrats use the strong majorities they hold in the Senate and House to authorize tolls, Republicans can run in 2020 on a platform to block them. Construction of gantries to electronically assess tolls would have to await negotiations with the Federal Highway Administration about the details.
Democratic lawmakers in Fairfield County are feeling particularly vulnerable. Anti-toll sentiment is strongest there, where local congestion encourages drivers to jump on Interstate 95 for even local business. Democrats could afford to lose three votes in the 36-member Senate, 15 votes in the 151-member House, and still get a tolling bill passed.
As noted earlier, however, expect Republicans to use the toll issue as a political bludgeon regardless of what happens. Even if a toll plan did not pass, Republicans will take credit for blocking it and will warn voters not to give Democrats another shot.
On the policy side, the Republican alternative for paying to repair and upgrade the state’s highway infrastructure is deeply flawed. Republicans would use general obligation bonds, sending the state deeper into debt. And unlike tolls, it would place the burden almost entirely on Connecticut residents, rather than also tapping those driving through our state on its highways.
Gov. Ned Lamont has the better plan of using toll money, along with the existing gas tax, to pay for transportation needs while otherwise placing the state on a debt diet.
As now envisioned, 53 electronic tolling gantries would be spaced six miles apart on Interstates 84, 91 and 95 and the Merritt Parkway. I-395 would not be tolled. Recent estimates from the state Department of Transportation show a one-way trip from Old Lyme to New London, or from Stonington to New London, costing about 60 cents during rush hour, 50 cents at off-peak times, a small burden for raising the revenues necessary to repair and improve the state’s transportation system.
When fully operational, the Lamont administration expects a toll system to generate $800 million annually.
Democrats also have to ask themselves, “If not now, when?” In 2018, many Democrats ran on platforms supporting tolls and their party won, convincingly. While it is true Lamont made a political calculation in adopting his trucks-only position on tolls during the campaign — only to flip to full tolling after the election — it is also true that the only gubernatorial candidate flatly against tolling was Republican Bob Stefanowski, and he lost.
Connecticut Democrats did well last November in no small measure because opposition to the presidency of Donald Trump drove Democratic voter turnout. That dynamic will only increase in 2020 when Trump is expected to be on the ballot. That will play a larger factor than the toll debate.
As pointed out in this space before, providing quality transportation is critically important to the state’s future economic prospects. Choked highways, a lack of reliable mass transportation options between its larger cities and the failure to realize the full potential of its major ports continue to put Connecticut at a great economic disadvantage.
A modern tolling system will create a reliable and fair revenue source to repair and improve that transportation system, tapping out-of-state drivers without driving Connecticut deeper into debt.
Republicans have made their political calculations, leaving it to Democrats to show the political courage to do what is in the best long-term interest of our state.