The entire debate about tolls in Connecticut is being driven by fake facts and flawed assumptions concerning projected Special Transportation Fund deficits.
Tolls advocates claim that gas tax collections are “disappearing”; Gov. Ned Lamont used that very word at a meeting with business leaders on Feb. 28. Yet the indisputable fact is that gas tax revenues have increased, and they continue to do so.
In fiscal year 2005, the state collected about $650 million in gas taxes (gasoline, diesel, Petroleum Gross Receipts, and special motor fuels tax); by 2018, the total was $822 million. Total gas taxes revenue in 2018 was nearly $85 million more than the previous year. Clearly, the only thing disappearing is honesty in public policy discussion.
Second, the $100 billion transportation spending plan that is driving the projected STF deficit has never been vetted in any detail. When asked at the Wednesday tolls hearing what the $100 billion would be spent on, Sen. Carlo Leone, D-Stamford and chair of the transportation committee, replied: “That’s the previous administration’s plan.” Well, what’s the infrastructure plan driving the spending now?
Former Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s proposed 30-year, $100 billion capital program has been the cause of the projected STF deficit. This represents a spectacular 300 percent increase in annual capital spending on transportation. There has never been a serious legislative discussion of our infrastructure needs; no one has questioned the amount, the timing, the priorities or the alternatives.
Nothing better illustrates the failure to debate or even clearly articulate the transportation capital plan than the recent press conference in Waterbury announcing the commencement of the “Mixmaster” project. The new commissioner of the Department of Transportation said the rehabilitation of the highway interchange will cost $200 million and would provide a workable solution until 2047. Yet the cost of replacing the Mixmaster, which is anticipated in the projected STF deficit, is $7.06 billion — 35 times what the rehabilitation cost will be. The apparent decision made by the DOT itself is that it is better to spend $200 million on a rehab with 25-year life than $7 billion on a replacement with up to 50 years of life. That is the kind of tradeoff that deserves public debate, but it never happened.
There was no real Malloy administration plan — it was just a great big spending number designed to exaggerate capital spending to justify tolls. No business would commit to a comparable outlay without a clear notion of where the money was going and what the benefit would be; in fact, no responsible family would take out a home improvement loan before deciding what needed to be done and how much it would cost.
We are being asked to accept tolls as a means of financing the most expensive (and undefined) commitment in Connecticut history, and we don’t know what the Lamont administration plan is. This is truly putting the cart before the horse. The debate over tolls should be set aside until we have a transportation plan we can evaluate. The financing decision — whether it’s with tolls, gas taxes or something else — happens only after you have made the investment decision with full knowledge of capital infrastructure details, project timing, costs and alternatives. In Connecticut, this has been done backwards.
The final flawed assumption underlying the so-called need for tolls is the assumption that federal funding will be locked in at the current $734 million annually and will not increase. In fact, the federal government historically has paid 70 percent to 80 percent of the cost of Connecticut’s transportation capital projects, and the Trump administration has announced that transportation infrastructure is a high priority. The amount of federal funding a state receives depends on many factors, but considering the current emphasis on infrastructure in Washington, D.C., anticipating zero increase for years is unnecessarily conservative. We should at least wait a year before making any predictions about future federal funding.
If the federal government helps carry the cost of Connecticut’s capital transportation spending, as it has in the past, there will be no STF deficit and no excuse for tolls. So why rush to commit to spending nearly $400 million on tolls infrastructure when federal policy may solve the problem? I fear it is because big-spenders in the administration and the legislature want a new revenue source so the growth of state government may continue unabated. That was the real reason for the state income tax, and the spending it enabled has brought Connecticut to its knees.
It would be imprudent and reckless to proceed with tolls until we are honest about our current revenue, specific about our needs and alternatives, and clear about what Washington can do to help us. Pushing for tolls without those facts should make taxpayers very suspicious.
Len Suzio is a former state senator and was vice chair of the transportation committee.