Harry Op-Ed: Tolls a bad policy without popular support
Updated: Aug 15, 2020
The current proposal to add tolls to Connecticut’s highways is unnecessary. The reasons put forth by the governor and his supporters in the legislature are misleading and incorrect. Tolls are neither needed nor supported by our residents. I have campaigned in the 151st district for the last few weeks and I can say from first-hand conversations that a large majority of our residents, irrespective of party affiliation, are opposed to tolls on our roads. Despite lack of support from the majority of our voters, if the Democrats in state government muscle their proposal into law, given their super-majority in the state legislature, it would be a massive mistake.
First, our transportation spending over the last few years has been inefficient and wasteful. Our state government spends annually an average $2.5 billion on the capital program and another $700 million on maintenance and operations. We have invested in a number of mega projects which have not delivered. The Hartford Line ($770 million), Hartford-New Brittany busway ($567 million), Norwalk Walk Bridge ($1.1 billion) are examples of such inefficient mega projects. The usage of the Hartford line hardly justifies the massive investment and the Norwalk Walk Bridge is overbudget and delayed. The proposed Bridgeport train station for a price tag of $300 million is another current glaring example of poor use of our tax dollars. The transportation commissioner has been on record about his strategy of “build it and the users will come.” Connecticut, with a stagnant economy and fiscal challenges, cannot afford this sort of speculative spending.
Second, tolls are a highly inefficient way to collect tax revenues. The toll gantries cost money to build and operate. They also slow down traffic and create congestion. Connecticut already levies various other taxes to raise transportation revenue: high gasoline/diesel tax, motor registration fee and the Motor Carrier Road Tax (“MCRT”). The MCRT, a lesser known tax, is paid by out-of-state truckers based on how many miles they drive in Connecticut. This debunks the current narrative that tractor trailers do not pay to use our roads; they already do. If the main objective was to raise more revenues from truck drivers, then the governor would have raised the MCRT. The unfortunate reality is that tolls are being proposed to create a new tax to extract increasingly more dollars from hard working Connecticut residents.
Finally, and most importantly, tolls are a regressive tax that hurt the working class and ordinary citizens the most. The same $20/week means different things to different people. However, all Connecticut commuters will have to pay the same toll despite their income or wealth levels. An unintended consequence will be that many residents that cannot afford tolls will be compelled to use local roads and our publicly paid highways will be reserved for the wealthy. For a democratically elected government to impose taxes in such a regressive way is unjustifiable.
To make the complete case against tolls, it is important to directly debunk the three arguments put forward by those who support them.
The first argument is that if we don’t raise tolls, we will have to raise other taxes or cut down on critical infrastructure spending. This is incorrect. By cutting down on low-priority and low-return transportation spending and handing over some projects to the private sector, we can continue with the required transportation program without any highway tolls. The second argument being made is that out of state truckers damage our roads but do not pay for it. This is also incorrect. As discussed above, out-of-state truckers already pay a Motor Carrier Road Tax which is among the highest in the country. Finally, there is the argument that tolls will reduce congestion on our roads by pushing away some traffic to local roads or off the roads. This concept is wrong. Our highways are a public good built with public money. The idea that they should be reserved only for the wealthy — which is what this argument implies — is absolutely shocking and unjustifiable.
Tolls are not the solution to our current transportation challenges and would be a big mistake. They are not needed and there is no popular support for them. What is required is a prioritization of our transportation spending and implementing our capital projects efficiently. I ask the governor’s office and the DOT officials to engage in a rigorous constructive dialogue with the Republican caucus in the state legislature to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of our transportation program.
Harry Arora is an incoming member of the Connecticut House of Representatives, representing District 151 in Greenwich. He was elected Jan. 21 in a special election and can be reached at email@example.com.