Look at it this way Toll protests are a thing of the past
Protests to tolls are similar — and as timeless — as methods of objecting to that lollygagger across the hood.
Back in the 1980s, The Business Council of Fairfield County (then SACIA) distributed buttons to lead the movement to have tolls removed. That’s the protest version of flashing the headlights.
In June 1939, New York motorists mocked the new dime tariff on the Merritt Parkway in Greenwich by offering $20 bills, causing a four-mile traffic jam. Call that a chorus of honks.
On Thursday, state Sen. Carlo Leone, D-Stamford, revealed the repugnant content of an email (“catch cancer and die”) he received after the Transportation Committee he heads passed three toll bills.
That’s the middle finger; pure, idiotic, road rage.
I brought the 80-year-old anecdote to the attention of Business Council Vice President Joe McGee Thursday. It’s from my first front page article in this newspaper, in November 1986: “Toll removal adds to history of ‘revered’ Merritt.”
Months after the Interstate-95 tolls were removed, state officials were scrambling to do the same on the Merritt in hopes of drawing traffic from other roads. The accompanying photo captures a single car on a long stretch near Exit 35.
Thirty-three years later, we’re on another loop of these concentric circles.
“We still have the buttons in the back closet,” McGee says.
He wasn’t able to dig one out. Maybe someone finally tossed them since the Business Council drives in the opposite direction these days. They lobby for tolls to fund overdue infrastructure improvements.
I asked to talk to McGee because he always remembers to glance in the rear-view mirror for reminders of catastrophes such as the collapsed Mianus Bridge. He’s also aspirational enough to fantasize about a horizon with faster trains and less traffic.
Some skeptics see McGee as the carnival barker behind the 30-30-30 plan, which imagines trips taking that long from Hartford to New Haven, from New Haven to Stamford and from Stamford to Grand Central.
He pitches other metaphors, acknowledging he has been painted as “the village idiot” and is aware of the need to be “a junkyard dog” to draw attention.
McGee’s thinking shifted a few years ago after the Business Council studied how much slower New Haven commutes had gotten over 40 years.
The Business Council hired T.Y. Lin International to dig deeper. The consulting agency brought in Joe Giulietti, who is the former Metro-North president (“I used to drive him crazy,” McGee concedes) and Gov. Ned Lamont’s choice for transportation commissioner. Cue Lamont on Inauguration Day, where he pledged 30-30-30 as a goal ... which hit the cutting room floor by the time he presented his budget.
The report made McGee see things in different ways. This is not something Connecticut people do well. If they did, someone might question why Greenwich has the luxury of four train stops. Or why we keep blaming Metro-North when Connecticut perpetually delays rail investments. Or why the trains don’t travel in a straighter line.
With four rail bridges past their century mark, the price tag on repairing the line is estimated at $5 billion.
As McGee talks about this, his hand gestures transform the empty table between us into an imaginary Lionel train set running from New York to Hartford. Like a kid trying to enhance his layout on a budget, McGee points to areas where curves in the line could be straightened to shave time.
Examining other rail systems also raised the possibility of charging a premium to ride an upgraded express from New Haven to New York.
“T.Y. Lin takes a look at what the future could look like,” McGee says. “It’s not Pollyanaish, but it challenges conventional thinking.”
He taps the wood table in One Landmark Square. “This was the center of Stamford. Now it’s the train station. ... the same can happen in New Haven and Bridgeport.”
To build a new Connecticut economy, cities must embrace rail, McGee opines. Doing that means collecting a lot of dimes at toll booths.
Greenwich’s Representative Town Meeting will consider a resolution against tolls April 8. McGee starts to characterize concerns over traffic flooding local roads as “cartoonish,” then pumps the brakes.
“Pulling off the highway to go through local roads is a real issue that has to be addressed. But the way (the argument is) being constructed is cartoonish.”
His characteristic diplomacy erodes a little more when he contemplates Republican opposition to tolls: “It’s so un-Republican I can’t believe it. The Republican party I joined several years ago has disappeared.”
He taps the brakes again and smiles. “I’m ranting here.”
Having been on both sides of the toll argument, McGee anticipates more traffic ahead.
“No one wants tolls. Who wants tolls? Kids don’t want to eat their spinach either.”
Maybe they should put that on a pin.
John Breunig is editorial page editor. firstname.lastname@example.org; twitter.com/johnbreunig