Gov. Dannel Malloy threw an unexpected wrench into the upcoming gubernatorial election on Wednesday when he unveiled a transportation plan that includes electronic toll booths and a higher gas tax.
The governor called for a seven-cent gas tax hike to be gradually instituted over the next four years, as well as electronic toll booths, intended to be operational by 2023. The highway tolls are expected to generate $600 to $800 million per year in revenue. Malloy’s pitch is an attempt to save the state’s cash-strapped Special Transportation Fund, or STF, the state fund for transportation-related construction, which is projected to bleed red ink this year and become insolvent in 2020, according to the Office of Policy and Management. During his announcement, Malloy said the consequences of inaction would be disastrous for Connecticut.
“The crisis came to a head recently but it was long in development,” Jim Cameron, a Hearst Newspapers commentator and 19-year member of the CT Rail Commuter Council, told the News.
With cars growing more fuel efficient by the year, and with the state’s flat gas tax of 25 cents holding steady despite years of inflation, the STF has been taking in less revenue than in past years. The General Assembly has also diverted millions of dollars from the STF when General Funds were lacking. In rankings of individual states’ budgeting practices compiled by the Volcker Alliance, a public policy nonprofit, Connecticut received a C grade when it came to using one-time actions to balance budgets rather than addressing underlying problems.
Now, the system’s ills have accumulated to the point that the state’s fiscal practices are becoming unsustainable, Cameron said. This January, the state Department of Transportation outlined nearly 400 capital projects, worth $4.3 billion in total, which it will have to suspend because of inadequate funds. DOT officials have warned that rail- and-bus fare hikes, as well as a shutdown of certain branches of Metro-North Railroad, should be anticipated.
Connecticut’s economy has suffered from the lack of investment in transportation services, according to Democratic gubernatorial candidate Ned Lamont SOM ’80, who immediately endorsed Malloy’s proposal on Wednesday. He attributed the departures of major businesses such as General Electric to an outdated airport and transportation system.
“The business community is ready to jump back in the game,” said Lamont. “But first, we have to show that we’re starting to commit to transportation.”
Against the backdrop of a sensitive reelection season, Republicans have been less than enthusiastic about the potential taxes. Many place the blame on Malloy for irresponsible budgeting that has led to an STF crisis.
“It’s quite convenient for Malloy to create the issue firsthand, then point it out as a ‘crisis’ that has broken, all of a sudden,” said Pat O’Neil, spokesman for the Connecticut House Republicans.
O’Neil further questioned whether the plan would yield significant revenue. Malloy intends for the gas tax to act as short-term relief that generates an immediate stream of revenue, while specifics for tolling — the principal transportation cash cow — are further developed. According to O’Neil, this implies that “tolls wouldn’t gain a single nickel for the next four to five years.”
The looming question now is whether the bill will pass the sharply divisive House, which only recently emerged from the longest budget impasse in state history. Gary Rose, chairman of Sacred Heart University’s political science department, said he “seriously doubted” the initiative would hold under fire, especially with an “unpopular lame duck governor.” As of January, Malloy was the nation’s second-least popular governor.
“Malloy won’t get a lot of traction even within his own party,” Rose said. “No one feels any sense of commitment or loyalty.”
Raising taxes is an unpopular move for both politicians and constituents, especially in elections, said Rose. He predicted that intraparty factionalism within the Democratic Party will reach the point that the bill fails to pass the General Assembly.
But Cameron said bringing up tolls and gas taxes was a necessary move, which Malloy was able to do because he is not seeking a third term, leaving him with “nothing to lose except for his legacy and reputation.” Without a renewed STF, it would be infeasible to renovate the clogged network of roads that hinders job growth in high-paying financial sectors in Fairfield, according to Cameron. Reductions in train services will also make the state less competitive compared to its neighbors, dampening the economy, he added.
“Nobody wants to live in a town where Dad has to catch an Uber if he misses the train to work,” Cameron said.
Lamont echoed sentiments about the necessity of Malloy’s plan, saying that safety should come before partisanship. Aging roads and bridges are structurally at risk without rebuilding initiatives, making it the state’s obligation to keep such infrastructure from falling into disrepair.
In the midst of debate, a rare point of partisan agreement is that the plan needs more fleshing out. Currently the exact location, fees and number of toll readers are undecided.
“Nobody really knows,” O’Neil said.
According to a recent AAA poll, 47 percent of Connecticut voters support the idea of tolls to help the transportation system.
Nicole Ahn | firstname.lastname@example.org