Ryan Fazio Why tolls are wrong for Connecticut
If you give a mouse a cookie, he’ll ask for a glass of milk. If you give a politician a billion dollars, he’ll ask for a billion more. With dozens of new legislators and executive officers inaugurated to state government this month, it is important to remember the lessons of the recent past. History might soon repeat itself.
On the heels of nearly $3 billion of tax increases under the previous Democrat administration, the new governor and General Assembly appear to want even more. Tolls are coming down the legislative pike in Connecticut, and could cost workers and families an additional $1 billion annually. The irony is that newly inaugurated Democrats supporting the project also campaigned on a change of course from the previous government of the same party.
Gov. Ned Lamont said, “working families have paid enough” and tried to distance himself from Gov. Dannel Malloy during the fall. New state senators such as Alex Bergstein of my native Greenwich and Will Haskell of Wilton said they were a “ different kind of Democrat ” or a “ fiscal moderate ” to flip previously red districts. And new representative Stephen Meskers, also of Greenwich, described himself as a fiscal conservative.
Yet they are slated to increase the costs Connecticut imposes on its citizens with such haste that it would make Mr. Malloy blush. Sen. Bergstein wrote the bill herself. When I asked at a recent town hall how she reconciles her campaign with this immediate push for revenue, she pointed to another bill of hers that would eliminate the estate and gift tax as vindicating.
I genuinely appreciate that Sen. Bergstein introduced such a bill. Unfortunately, that proposal and about five cents will get you a mile down a newly tolled Connecticut highway. Ned Lamont, AFSCME employee and House Speaker Joe Aresimowicz, and Senate President Pro Tempore Martin Looney will never permit the estate tax bill to become law. Even if they did, the elimination of the estate tax would reduce revenue by just over $100 million annually, a small fraction of the toll money. And that says nothing of pairing tax cuts on the rich with toll hikes on the rest of us — instead of tax cuts for all.
If Fairfield County’s “fiscal moderates” are convinced tolls are a superior form of revenue, they should amend the current tolling bill to include tax cuts of equivalent or greater value. In that way they could relieve the excessive cost on Connecticut families — and prove their moderate bona fides to boot.
A second problem with the effort is that our local legislators should first address the wild inefficiencies of Connecticut’s transportation system before they raise more revenue for it. Connecticut currently has the highest administrative expense per mile of highway ($99,417 vs. 10,864 nationally) and the sixth-highest total expense ($497,659 vs. 178,116) despite very poor road quality, according to the Reason Foundation . The responsibility of stewarding the hard-earned tax dollars of Nutmeggers means getting the most out of that which is already taken; not taking more and more with impunity.
Third, tolls are not an efficient or cheap means of raising revenue. The cost of building and maintaining tech-intensive gantries eats into the revenue for the government. The Department of Transportation’s study on a realistic toll program estimated the capital expenditure at $372 million and annual operating expense around $100M versus roughly $1 billion in gross revenue. In many ways, the gasoline taxes that are currently the largest source of revenue for the Special Transportation Fund (STF) are more efficient than tolls.
Finally, immediately creating a new stream of transportation revenue is an obvious misplacement of priorities. The STF is actually in balance for the next few years. There is no clear and present need for new spending — and if there were, it should be financed by eliminating the waste first. Certainly, there are not additional and immanent infrastructure needs amounting to 50 percent of all current transportation spending — which $1 billion equals. Plus, relatedly, the proponents of tolls should be much more specific about how those dollars will be spent.
Instead, the clear and present fiscal danger is the major deficits in the general fund out into the future, driven by the ballooning cost of state employees. In 2020 alone , the shortfall will amount to $1.6 billion, or about 8 percent of the fund. A decade from now, we will yearn desperately for the days of $1.6 billion shortfalls. Transportation funding, such as toll revenue, cannot legally — or mathematically — be used to bridge that deficit. Our solution lies elsewhere.
The cost of government to the working poor and middle class in Connecticut is exorbitantly high as is. After billions in tax hikes, job and income growth in the state slowed to a crawl. Connecticut clearly needs new, moderate Democrats to lead their party instead of left-wingers as usual. While I fear early signs point to the same old in the new term, I hope to be proven wrong. Changing course on tolls, or offsetting the burden with an equivalent tax cut in the same bill, would go a long way toward assuaging my fears — and those of 2 million workers across Connecticut.
Ryan Fazio grew up in Greenwich and graduated from Greenwich High School in 2008. He lives and works in Stamford, and writes and volunteers at schools in his spare time.