“Keep Transportation Fees for Transportation Needs”- ONLY

February 6, 2012

Tolls and taxes are two words sure to raise the temperature in any room. I was recently on a panel discussion on the future of transportation funding. Various speakers reported on the state of transportation and future trends. And yes, those two words were repeated often.

U.S. Representatives reported that the state of the nation’s infrastructure is in dire condition and in need of modernization. As the most congested and oldest transportation corridor in the nation, we experience this on a daily basis.

State Transportation Commissioner Jim Redeker noted that, although his agency is in preservation mode, some headway is being made on certain projects like the Q Bridge on I-95 in New Haven which is under budget and on time. The DOT Commissioner also mentioned that the new M-8 rail cars are running well and are getting positive reviews.

Large scale priority projects include:

  • I-84 Aetna Viaduct
  • I-84 RT 8 mix master
  • Moveable rail bridges
  • Rail signal and power system improvements

These projects could cost up to $8 billion. However, if the state’s share of funding goes down, as predicted, DOT will only be able to complete federally funded projects. The conversation then became more animated. It is widely reported that the state’s financial situation continues to be serious. How will we continue to fund state projects?

Emil Frankel, with the Bipartisan Policy Center (BPC) and former DOT Commissioner, spoke of the creation of the Special Transportation Fund (STF). This pool of money was dedicated solely to road and bridge infrastructure. However, over time it became an easy target during budget shortfalls and was often raided to pay for other department expenditures.

According to Emil Frankel, Connecticut can no longer look to the federal government for funding because the money is no longer there. He fears Connecticut’s slice of the funding pie will only get smaller.

He believes that we should prioritize and only invest in projects that are essential to safety and growth. He then uttered the dreaded words, tolls, and taxes (gas or sales taxes). There was also a serious discussion on public private partnerships (PPP) which is now being used to renovate all of Connecticut’s highway rest stops. Panel moderator, Joe McGee from the Business Council of Fairfield County, posed these ideas to the legislative panel.

Many of the panelists were in favor of tolls. I, and others, offered opposing views. Fairfield County residents continue to express their opposition to tolls and appropriately ask if these funds would be safeguarded and used for transportation purposes only. Would the gas tax be reduced as a result and would money from any tolls be directed at improvements in the transit system and not wasted elsewhere?

There is a visceral reaction from businesses and chambers of commerce, particularly in cities like Danbury where 40 percent of their mall business comes from New York. If the state considers putting tolls on its borders, it must also consider the inequity of those who will pay them. Some residents work across state lines and would pay the toll tax daily, others work locally and would not be so burdened.

The funding issue can be viewed from a different perspective. I would like to see the legislature prioritize and redirect funding from other areas of the state budget. Why do we need to create another tax? We already have 378 sources of revenue.

Controversial topics in addition to tolls on highways such as red light cameras for speeders and new protocols for stranded planes at airports are sure to come up. However, a top priory should be given to securing scarce dollars intended for our transportation needs.

In the past, many of us introduced legislation to stop the draining of transportation funds to close budget holes and place a lock box on them. Similar proposals are being introduced again this year. Funds from the gas tax and fares should be used to maintain and upgrade our roads, rails, buses, bridges, tunnels, ports, and planes.

No matter what fee proposal makes it through the legislature, transportation fees must be for transportation needs ONLY.

(Senator Toni Boucher is ranking member of the State’s Transportation Committee)