Across the region we all struggle with more traffic on congested highways, overcrowded trains with delays, and climbing transit fares. But in Connecticut, where the economy has yet to fully recover from the 2008 recession, the problem goes deeper. The state can no longer pay for necessary improvements to its highways, roads and the transit system that gets people to and from work. Just this week, the state signaled that it might need to halt weekend service on several branch lines.
Connecticut’s FY 2019 budget that will soon make its way to the General Assembly calls for a massive cut of $4.3 billion in transportation funding – one that will greatly impact necessary infrastructure projects and transit improvements. For the past several years, the state has raided the Special Transportation Fund to help balance the budget, and the day of reckoning has arrived. The state can no longer issue bonds because it’s balance sheet is in the red.
And while we desperately need to invest in both our rails and our roads, the budget proposal as it stands unfairly burdens transit riders with train and bus fares projected to go up 10% and 15% respectively while the gas tax remains flat. To put it in perspective, the average Connecticut household spends $15 per month on road and transit improvements while the average Metro North rider spends $362 per month on rail fare.
So, how can Connecticut begin to solve this crisis?
Just a few days ago, Governor Malloy announced a package of improvements to address the crisis. These include implementing statewide electronic tolling and increasing the state gas tax from 25 cents to 32 cents per gallon.The state’s gas tax was slashed in 1997 from 39 cents to 25 cents per gallon and has stayed there ever since.
This announcement signals a recognition that it’s time to create revenue to fund transportation improvements and roadway users need to pay their fair share.
A new statewide system of electronic tolls could potentially raise up to $800 million a year.
But there are a few important catches- for tolling and the gas tax to be effective revenue streams for transportation, there needs to be an iron-clad lockbox so these funds don’t end up getting used to fill budget gaps in the general fund.
And as Governor Malloy didn’t hesitate to recognize – the gas tax is slowly becoming obsolete as cars become more efficient and there are more electric cars on the road.
So while the gas tax will help address the crisis now, user fees- in other words, tolls- are the future. And that future doesn’t need to be so far off. The Department of Transportation estimates that it will take 4-5 years to implement tolls in Connecticut. But RPA estimates that it could take as little as 12-18 months for installation and activation. The timeline for procurement, environmental review and permitting could be much longer.
Connecticut’s transportation system is in crisis and riders and drivers alike can’t afford to wait. The State should move quickly to implement tolling, putting the revenues directly back to transportation.