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James Locker Flaws in the argument for tolls

March 7, 2019

As the conversation on tolls reaches jet-engine takeoff noise levels, it’s time to reflect on how we got here and where we should go next.

The conventional wisdom is that tolls are needed to fund transportation-related projects. We are told the transportation fund is dangerously close to exhaustion and (rails, bridges, roads) are in lousy condition waiting for a tragic event (akin to the 1983 Mianus River Bridge collapse).

However, at the same time Connecticut spent around $700 million (in addition to federal funds) on just two transit projects during the recent major tax increases. Many services deemed necessary were cut to close chronic budget gaps. State-wide tolls are seen as the magic wand to cure these infrastructure shortcomings. Is this necessary?

1. The governor sets the priorities and tone:

Candidate Ned Lamont’s campaign rhetoric advocated truck-only tolls. He referred to Rhode Island’s implementation of truck-only tolls in September as a model. After his inauguration he effectively endorsed all vehicle tolls.

The governor’s team responded that he was previously unaware truck-only tolls would not generate adequate revenue.

It seems to be a lame response given that tolls are the third rail in our state and Lamont knew this.

Perhaps he was goaded to change positions by state Sen. Alexandra Bergstein’s statement (Jan. 23 news story “Senate group targets senator’s highway tolls bill”): “Connecticut residents already spend $2,300 (per person) in wasted time and fuel sitting in unnecessary traffic. Wouldn’t people rather pay just $600 in tolls to save $2,300 by reducing commuting time.” It is easy to understand the $600 out-of-pocket cost, but not how to bank the $2,300.

Check the box: ( ) commuters prefer stop-go traffic; or ( ) commuters have a job that requires rush-hour driving. Tolls won’t change the commute drive time but raise the cost by the referenced $600.

2. Neighboring states have tolls, so why not Connecticut?

Neighboring states have tolls but not across the entire state.

Massachusetts: Mass Pike and Boston’s bridge/tunnel, but not Routes 95, 128, 495, 93, etc.

New Jersey: Turnpike, Garden State and New York bridge/tunnel, but not Routes 4, 80, 287, etc.

New York: Thruway and city bridge/tunnel but not Routes 84/684, Major Deegan, Long Island parkways etc.

Rhode Island: Truck tolls on Route 95 since September.

3. Who says we don’t spend big money for transportation projects in Connecticut even in deficit times?

As reported by Dan Haar (Dec 28) Connecticut spent $769 million ($204 million was federal) to expand rail service from New Haven to Hartford and Hartford to Springfield, Mass. The first-year operating cost was estimated at $44 million. The combined 29 round trips produced 600,000 passengers in year one. Compared with 300,000 from six Amtrak round trips — 5X round trips produced 2X rider increase. Schedule it and they will come seems best associated with baseball.

Of the $70 per passenger operating cost, ticket sales generated around $7.2 million, leaving a subsidy of $60/passenger. Doubling ridership, if achievable, reduces the subsidy to $48 per passenger. In contrast, the state subsidy for Metro-North’s 40,000,000 passengers a year is $4 per passenger.

The New Britain-Hartford Busway (9.4 miles) was built on current/former rights-of-way owned by Amtrak or Connecticut. The estimated cost was $570 million ($400 million federal) with year one operating cost of $17.5 million.About 14,000 rides per day were indicated for 2015. However, 50 percent were on routes other than the busway. That equates to about 3,500 “new” riders

Add it up: the state during two tax increases spent close to $700,000,000 with an ongoing annual subsidy of more than $40 million for count-on-one finger rider gains. Where could Metro-North benefit with that level of funding?

4. How do Stamford and other rail stops look? Not so good.

Much of the original Stamford station garage is cordoned off (after flooring collapse) and areas have plywood “ceilings” to protect walkway users (seriously?). Upper floors have many spaces blocked. This has been a problem for many years but the state dithered while concrete deteriorated and flooring gave way.

Recently $22 million was announced for Stamford train station projects, but more notable is the absence of a project to replace the original garage in the current location. This situation remains tied up in an ill-conceived project to locate parking a quarter of a mile away. “Let them eat cake” has become “Let them walk.”

The state’s stubbornness (displayed over the Dan Malloy years) to replace the original garage is appalling. Now is the time for Lamont and Department of Transportation Commissioner Joe Giulietti to show the leadership lacking in the previous administration. Funds are already accounted for so there is no excuse for further procrastination.

5. A call to action

I request that Sen. Bergstein convene a stand-up meeting at the Stamford train garage. Hard hats for all would be an appropriate handout.

This event would also serve as a rally to fix all stations and trackways along the corridor. If the state could fund $700,000,000 (plus federal funds) of CTfastrak projects in similar financial difficulties, our elected leaders can find that amount of funding.

Now is the time for all public servants to come to the aid of their constituents. Once that is underway, then let’s talk tolls.

James Locker is a Stamford resident.

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