Shifting gears never comes easy in Conn.
Back 36 years ago, it was virtually the last straw.
Six people died at the Interstate-95 toll plaza in Stratford when a trucker fell asleep and plowed into their vehicles from behind. The fiery January 1983 crash was one of those horrendous, chance occurrences. It also was a game-changer.
Already under pressure for the long lines, wasted gas and pollution plumes from the toll plazas, the General Assembly — like today — mostly 187 scared rabbits whose idea of long-term planning is the next election, used the issue of safety as a fig leaf to finally get Connecticut out of the toll business within a few years.
I remember writing a column back in the day suggesting that smiling images of the governor at the time, Bill O’Neill, be placed on the backs of all the semi-circular exact-change baskets, so miffed motorists could work on their lefty slam dunks into his toothy face, a quarter at a time.
That was then.
Now, even the Republicans who are trying to fabricate a wedge issue for their dreamed takeover of the General Assembly in 2020 — wait, isn’t that a presidential election year? — realize the inevitable return of highway tolls in the last state that even vaguely borders the Atlantic Ocean. If you profess to want to support business, you have to create an atmosphere that could foster it.
For starters, tolls are user fees. They’re fees for passage, toted up by electronic gantries that show up on a monthly credit card statement. They’re not taxes, as those on the right who aspire to higher office, or their first elective office, call it.
If you’re not driving on toll roads, you’re not paying tolls.
Back in the dark ages, when the drinking age was 18 in New York and 21 in Connecticut, we 17- and 18-year-olds from Fairfield County knew all the side roads through Greenwich, to get around the I-95 and parkway toll plazas.
After all, you could get a beer for a quarter at Vahsen’s or Mollicas’ in Port Chester, N.Y. There were no questions asked at the beer distributor across from the Lifesaver building. I can still remember the delightful, after-midnight aroma of the Arnold bakery on the way home. Makes me thirsty.
If anything, Gov. Ned Lamont’s initial support of trucks-only tolls was discriminatory. Plus, $200 million in toll revenue was loose change, compared with $800 million, which the state could start reaping in four or five years if the General Assembly does what they need to do and go all-in on highway tolling.
If Lamont can persuade lawmakers to end exemptions in sales taxes and collect more tax revenue from Internet and streaming transactions, the state will likely manage existing transportation infrastructure projects for the few years it would take to get the tolls up.
And 40 percent of the Connecticut highway traffic, folks, is from out-of-state. You’re paying to resurface the roads of New Jersey when you visit family there, but they’re coming up here for free.
It’s not taxes that scare the business community. It’s fiscal stability. The Wizard of Omaha himself, Warren Buffett, warned a few days ago that savvy investors better not put their money into states with under-funded liabilities, such as Illinois and Connecticut.
Is maybe that the reason there is a lingering 30-percent vacancy rate for Stamford office buildings, at a time when more companies are migrating east from New York City, into the Bronx and Westchester? “It’s coming to Connecticut if we’re prepared for it,” said Joe McGee, vice president of the Business Council of Fairfield County, when asked about the potential opportunities. “It’s right in front of us, if we have the transit system.”
Sure, Connecticut can maybe entice some companies to move their headquarters, with a few jobs for bigwigs to inflate the higher-end housing market in Southwestern Connecticut.
But the scary, slow-motion vehicular traffic and aging train lines mean their employees would need to jump through some high hoops every day just getting to work. Life is a struggle enough without 20 hours a week spent parked on I-95 or the Merritt Parkway, in the sad, twice-a-day commuter conga lines.
All we need is some honesty, maybe some bravery and foresight, from the General Assembly, for a change. Yeah, it’s a tall order.
Ken Dixon, political editor and columnist, can be reached at 203-842-2547 or at email@example.com. Visit him at twitter.com/KenDixonCT and on Facebook at kendixonct.hearst.