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Funding transportation needs is a tough sell

A special committee appointed to suggest ways to finance a massive program to repair and upgrade Connecticut’s transportation system produced painful but expected recommendations Friday that include returning tolls to state highways, and increasing both the gas tax and the sales tax.

Unfortunately, the failure of the Democratic-controlled legislature and the administration of Gov. Dannel P. Malloy to properly manage the state budget and rein in costs will make it difficult to sell this funding plan to wary voters.

Before any new revenues can be raised via tolls or taxes, voters must be given the chance to approve a constitutional amendment mandating that those revenues be placed in the Special Transportation Fund and used for no other purpose but transportation.

In its report, the Transportation Finance Panel concludes that of the $100 billion Governor Malloy’s administration says it needs to repair and modernize the state’s transportation system, two-thirds should be considered “statewide preservation efforts.”

“These investments aim to keep the transportation systems that exist today operating smoothly, safely, and without disruption to the state’s economy or to the quality of life of its citizens,” states the report.

Those needs include $33 billion in bridge repairs and improvements, $15 billion in highway preservation and safety enhancement costs, and $15 billion for rail repair and replacement, according to the panel.

This raises doubts about the adequacy of the proposal from Republican legislators to invest only $37 billion into transportation by redirecting existing borrowing used for other purposes. That investment sounds too little and the painless redirection of funds unrealistic. However, reprioritizing spending may help pay for some of the transportation requirements and reduce the need for additional revenues.

The panel concluded another $30 billion must be spent to expand and upgrade the existing highway network and passenger and rail transportation, dredge and improve the state’s major ports, including in New London, expand bus service, and build a network of bike and pedestrian trails.

This newspaper has long advocated the use of modern, electronic tolling to raise revenues for transportation needs. The panel concludes $18.3 billion in toll revenue can be raised over 20 years, beginning in 2022.

Significantly, the analysis determined about 30 percent of this revenue would come from out-of-state drivers, another 24 percent from heavy trucks. As things now stand, the cost of paying to maintain the highways falls predominately on the backs of Connecticut taxpayers, with the exception of the revenue gathered when out-of-state drivers gas up here. Tolls collect money from all those using the highways.

Other states have figured this out. Of the 14 most densely populated states in the continental United States, 13 have toll roads and bridges. In this group, only Connecticut alone passes up the chance to raise revenue via tolls.

In starting new, Connecticut could utilize the latest technology. Electronic tolls would assess fees without toll booths or the need for traffic slowing. This technology would allow discounts for state drivers or congestion pricing, offering toll-fee reductions to those who use the highway on off-peak hours, easing rush-hour traffic.

Under the scenario discussed by the panel, tolls would be installed along three major corridors — Interstate 84 from New York to Hartford, I-95 from New Haven to New York, and I-95 from New Haven to Rhode Island. Tolls would also be added in other strategic locations, including on Route 11 to help pay for finally linking that highway to an I-95/I-395 interchange.

More money than tolls can generate will be needed, even if the scope of the transportation undertaking is scaled back, which is likely.

The panel suggests increasing the per gallon gas tax from 25 cents to the 39 cents it stood at in 1998, increasing it in 2-cent increments over seven years. The better option is to impose the increase immediately, taking advantage of low gas prices. Finding the political will to hike the tax seven times would be difficult.

Also suggested is adding one-half of 1 percentage point to the sales tax, now at 6.35 percent, and having the revenues generated by a full-percentage of the sales tax go to transportation, as opposed to the current half-percent.

Our inclination is to leave the sales tax alone, and consider the alternative offered by the panel — moving all motor-vehicle related sales taxes to the STF.

No one wants higher taxes or tolls. The timing is not good given Connecticut’s meager economic recovery and new economic storm clouds looming. And the trust factor is low given the handling of the state budget.

But Connecticut has to improve its transportation system and it has to pay for it.

The Day editorial board meets regularly with political, business and community leaders and convenes weekly to formulate editorial viewpoints. It is composed of President and Publisher Tim Dwyer, Editorial Page Editor Paul Choiniere, Managing Editor Izaskun E. Larrañeta, staff writer Erica Moser and retired deputy managing editor Lisa McGinley. However, only the publisher and editorial page editor are responsible for developing the editorial opinions. The board operates independently from the Day newsroom.

Transportation Finance Panel Final Report January 15 2016 (PDF)


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