Courant Editorial: Lockbox For Transportation Funds Worth Trying

January 12, 2015

A lockbox for state transportation funds? Let’s try it

Hartford Courant

A lockbox for transportation funds is a good idea — provided all the money goes into it and the transportation commissioner has the only key.

Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, who is making transportation a top priority of his second term, proposed in his inaugural address Wednesday that “Connecticut create a secure transportation lockbox that will ensure every single dollar raised for transportation is spent on transportation.”

State Sen. Len Fasano, R-North Haven, the Senate minority leader, called for a constitutional amendment to protect transportation funds, and on Friday Mr. Malloy said his proposal would include a statutory change and a constitutional amendment.

Curiously, there already is a statute, due to go into effect on July 1, that says the “resources of the Special Transportation Fund shall be used only for transportation purposes.” But perhaps it isn’t enough.

As Keith Phaneuf recently reported in The Connecticut Mirror, lockboxes aren’t foolproof. There are ways to pry them open.

Pick The Lock

A majority of states have constitutional, statutory or contractual provisions that require that state fuel tax revenues be used exclusively for highway or other transportation costs. But, according to a 2011 study by the National Conference of State Legislatures, such restrictions “are not always effective.” The study found at least seven states had diverted funds to other uses, despite restrictions.

Connecticut officials created the Special Transportation Fund to support improvements following the tragic collapse of the Mianus River Bridge on I-95 in Greenwich in 1983 that took three lives. But almost since the fund’s creation, legislators have been using it as a piggy bank to balance the general budget. This is the practice everyone wants to stop.

Unfortunately, that is easier said than done. As Mr. Phaneuf reports, the Special Transportation Fund is projected to receive about $1.5 billion in revenue next year. About 60 percent of that will come from the state’s retail and wholesale taxes on gasoline and other fuels. The remainder comes from various license and permit fees and other motor vehicle receipts, as well as a $150 million subsidy from the general fund.

Don’t Pay

The legislature can cancel the $150 million transfer, as it has done for the last two years. You can’t lock up money that hasn’t gotten to the box.

Also, the fund is supposed to be used for “transportation purposes.” What does that entail? The fund is now used, though it wasn’t always, to pay the operating costs of the Department of Motor Vehicles, among other things. Instead of taking money out of the lockbox, the legislature could shoehorn more expenses — state police salaries? — into it.

So creating an effective lockbox is a challenge, but one that shouldn’t be insurmountable. With gas taxes producing less revenue than they once did, Mr. Malloy and legislative leaders are looking at tolls or other ways to pay for needed transportation improvements. Perhaps the creation of a lockbox should be part of that process, not independent of it. Or perhaps a third-party watchdog can keep an eye on the money.

However accomplished, the state urgently needs to replace rail and highway bridges, repair roads and build other infrastructure. It needs the money to pay for this work. As Mr. Malloy prepares a plan to bring the state’s transportation network into at least the late 20th century, some kind of lockbox — preferably a heavy bank vault — is a good idea.