Tolls: No exit

The reintroduction of tolls on Connecticut highways became likely upon the election in 2018 of Ned Lamont as governor. He had run on such a plan, calling it necessary to fund a transportation overhaul.

After considering wider-ranging plans, state Democrats have now agreed on a tolling proposal that applies solely to trucks as a way to boost the state economy.

There are toll plans that could make sense for Connecticut, that would bring in the kind of revenue the state says it needs to fund a new transit plan while giving breaks to state residents and low-income drivers.

The plan currently on offer does not meet those criteria. It’s been watered down to the point that it’s no longer worth enacting. It wouldn’t raise enough money to finance needed projects, and is not worth the massive infrastructure investment that installing toll gantries would require. Details on revenue projections remain hazy.

The Legislature should reject the tolls plan as currently offered.

A key moment in the debate arrived last summer when Republicans said they agreed with the governor on the broad outlines of a plan to spend in the neighborhood of $20 billion on repairs and upgrades to the state’s road, rail and other transit systems. From that point, the debate should have centered on one question: Do we want the money to pay for those upgrades to come only from state residents, or should drivers passing through from other states contribute part of the cost, as well?

Like it or not, Connecticut is often merely in the way of where people want to go. We stand between millions of New Yorkers and a weekend at the Cape, as well as upper New Englanders who need to drive almost anywhere else in the country. Since tolls were removed from Connecticut in the 1970s, all those drivers have had a free ride through our state, even as Connecticut residents pay regularly to take other states’ roads. It stands to reason that our highways have suffered as we watch all that potential revenue pass through uncollected.

Estimates show that out-of-state drivers could amount for up to 40 percent of toll revenue. If we don’t toll out-of-state drivers, that money has to be made up from in-state sources. Whether it’s borrowing or raiding the rainy day fund, the money all comes from the same place.

The governor has mishandled the tolls question from the first day of his administration, and as a result, even if the current plan passes, the transportation problems in Connecticut won’t be close to solved. Legislators so frightened of being blamed for telling voters that some things need to be paid for will instead support a half-measure that will please no one.

Even though the debate has dragged on for months, lawmakers need to start over. Tolls should be abandoned for this session and reintroduced in a format that makes sense next year, with a new Legislature. And under no circumstances should Connecticut be tolling a stretch of Interstate 684 that barely dips into Greenwich from New York state, as is currently planned.

A new Legislature may come up with a workable proposal. But the current plan is the wrong way forward.