Close the deal on tolls, improve state ranking

The latest U.S. News & World Report rankings of the best states to live in bolsters Gov. Ned Lamont’s argument that central to getting Connecticut headed in the right direction is providing a reliable funding source to improve its transportation infrastructure. That means tolls.

Connecticut was ranked 21 among the 50 states, up three spots from a year ago. Among the strong performers for the state was a ranking of 3 for access to and quality of health care and 6 for its “natural environment.” The state’s education system — strong in many of the suburbs but still weak in its low-income, urban centers — got a 12 ranking.

What were the anchors dragging the state down to its middle-of-the-pack standing? Connecticut ranked 46th in both infrastructure and fiscal stability and 30th for its economy. These poor performers are related.

While most of its neighboring states have, to varying degrees, long utilized tolls to provide a reliable revenue source to help maintain and improve their highways and other transportation systems, Connecticut abandoned its tolls in 1985. That left it relying on a gas tax, paid largely by the residents who live and fill their tanks in Connecticut.

It has not provided enough revenue and failed to collect fees from the millions of drivers who pass through the state but never gas-up in Connecticut. The tax will continue to provide diminishing returns as car fuel efficiency improves and hybrids and electric vehicles grow in popularity.

The State Transportation Fund has also been subject to raids when money was needed to balance state budgets.

The result has been insufficient investment in transportation, leading to congested highways and roads, bridges and overpasses in poor condition, and that 46 ranking. Connecticut has much catching up to do.

To assure money raised by imposition of tolls would be used only for transportation needs, voters in 2016 approved a state constitutional amendment providing that guarantee. Having a reliable source of revenue to help pay for transportation needs, with 40 percent of it coming from out-of-state drivers, would be one part of the solution to providing greater fiscal stability.

Most significantly, finding the means to modernize the state’s transportation system is critical to improving its economy. That is why the Chamber of Commerce of Eastern Connecticut, the Business Council of Fairfield County, the Connecticut Building Trades Council and the Connecticut Construction Industry Association, among others, have endorsed imposition of electronic tolls.

Department of Transportation Commissioner Joe Giulietti has testified his agency needs at least $2 billion annually to maintain and improve the transportation infrastructure. As proposed, $800 million would come from toll collections and the difference from existing fuel taxes and federal matching grants.

The challenge for Lamont is to close the deal in the face of unanimous Republican opposition. With Democrats holding the governor’s seat and strong majorities in the House and Senate — with many of those candidates having run on platforms that included using tolls to meet transportation needs — it is hard to envision when there will be a better chance for the legislature to make this difficult, politically unpopular but necessary move.

The Republican alternative — “Prioritize Progress” — is bad fiscal policy. The Republican plan would combine $700 million in annual borrowing, to be repaid out of the General Fund, and combine it with the $700 million the state already takes from the State Transportation Fund to meet debt obligations, and then add in federal matching grants to hit the $2 billion target.

This would drive up state debt, when the state should be doing the opposite. It would tap little revenue from out-of-state drivers. And it depends on the legislature and governor authorizing the necessary borrowing every year, a questionable prospect. In contrast, toll collection will be reliable and likely grow.

Democratic leaders are signaling the governor what they need to secure the necessary votes. Senate President Martin M. Looney, D-New Haven, says the governor needs to spell out more clearly how the state will pay for construction while awaiting the toll revenues to arrive in several years. This will likely require a short-term version of the plan pushed by Republicans.

House Speaker Joe Aresimowicz, D-Berlin, said his members are pressing for specifics, such as how toll discounts for state residents would be applied.

Credit the governor for taking on such a difficult issue. The next couple of weeks will demonstrate whether he has the political chops to bring it home.

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 Tim Cotter, Staff Writer Julia Bergman 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.

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