Tolls And Gas Tax Increases Are Not Family Friendly

We all use public transportation infrastructure. It needs to be maintained and improved. Our current challenge is how to pay for it. The political parties in state government have different opinions. The problem is not having enough money to pay for public infrastructure. The problem is how government uses your hard earned money (taxes).

It has been reflexive and too easy for the majority Democrats to increase taxes. Two massive tax hikes, along with the prior creation of the state income tax, casino revenue taxes, and the lottery, have not been able to dig us out of a fiscal hole. Large deficits loom on the imminent horizon and the current state budget was soon out of whack and already adjusted to add back in deficit spending. Why would raising more taxes work this time? It is well known that doing the same thing over and over again, expecting a different result, is a definition of insanity.

Installing highway tolls, creating a “mileage tax”, increasing the gas tax, and taxing tires are not viable answers. Unless and until state government takes seriously its responsibility of common sense fiscal stewardship, any new money raised will be spent quickly and we will face the same deficit problem again, only worse than it was before.  

We need a New Way of doing things.

House and Senate Republicans did propose a new way. Create a sustainable funding and spending formula for transportation infrastructure of $1 billion each year for the next 30 years by setting aside a defined amount of general and special tax obligation bonds. Foster a more efficient, effective, collaborative, and community-oriented working of the Transportation Strategy Board and the Department of Transportation. No tax increases. No tolls.   Although no plan can be 100% perfect, nevertheless, this plan is a good, prudent, strong step forward.  

Proponents of tolls cite an AAA poll that found 47% of Connecticut drivers surveyed favored tolls. Glibly overlooked is that 47% is not a majority. 53% did not want tolls. The 980 drivers surveyed is a tiny fraction of the more than 2.6 million legal drivers in our state. Estimates about tolls show that out-of-state drivers would account for only 30% of toll money raised. The other 70%? All of us Connecticut citizens, who already pay many types of state taxes. This would be unfair and certainly not of family-friendly value during times of ongoing economic challenges.

The Department of Transportation’s estimates a $450-$635 million cost to install tolls would occur years before any revenue from them would be generated. Where will the money come from in the meantime to pay for tolls? Furthermore, Transportation Commissioner Redeker stated previously that full-bore tolls using congestion pricing schemes would make Connecticut “the only state in the nation that tolled that much”. That is not an honor worth achieving.

Proponents of raising the gas tax talk about indexing its rise automatically to the inflation rate or stepping up the tax by defined amounts. Connecticut already has a high tax relative to many states: 25-cent/gallon excise tax for gas and 41.7-cents/gallon for diesel. There is also an additional state gross receipt tax and a federal 18.4-cents/gallon gas and 24.4-cents/gallon diesel taxes. Three different taxes per each gallon! A CT Office of Legislative Research report (01/25/2018) listed CT as being #8 of all states in the retail price of gas and #9 in the amount of state taxes/gallon.   The next time you are at the pumps, calculate how much you are paying in taxes per gallon you buy. You would be surprised to know. The Hartford Courant’s editorial of 02/01/2018 rightly said, “We pay enough at the pump”. Gas tax increases are not family-friendly because they take more money out of peoples’ wallets and pocketbooks. Gas tax increases are not jobs-friendly because they cause businesses either to pass the extra costs on to you or to not be able to use the money for capital purchases, expansions, jobs, and salaries.

A recent report by the Reason Foundation compared each state’s highway performance. Using 2015 data, Connecticut ranked #46 out of 50 (a “very bad” category) and its ranking worsened compared with 2012 data. Per each mile of state roads, Connecticut is #20 in maintenance spending ($35,384 compared with a national average of $28,020). It is #1 in administrative spending ($99,417, which is 9 times the national average of $10,864). Our state government spends more than 30 other states on maintenance spending per mile, yet still is #44 out of 50 in state rankings for the number of deficient bridges (34.2% compared with a 21.7% national average). These facts highlight that the problem is how Connecticut spends money. If money can be redirected toward its primary purpose of maintaining and upgrading public infrastructure, instead of administering the process, then there would not be a need to rush into new taxes and tolls.

There is also a serious lack of trust in state government. Each budget cycle, money raised for particular, promised purposes gets swiped away into the general fund. This is no way to do meaningful, long-term budgeting. Ideas proposed about “lock boxes” have been weak in that they allow a continued backdoor for taking money easily from a lock box. Real efforts need to be made to protect the transportation fund. Real efforts need to be made to stop using the fund’s money for pet projects, such as the CT fastrak bus way, or for subsidizing bus and train fares to such an extent that transportation needs elsewhere in the state (like here in northeast CT) get shortchanged. Speaker Aresimowicz’s recent idea of creating another layer of bureaucracy in the form of a transportation authority does not engender trust. House Minority Leader Klarides rightfully called it what it is: an “abdication of power” by legislators elected to represent the people of their communities. Another quasi-public agency would not be accountable to you. That is not a way to run state government by alienating and distancing itself from you.

Furthermore, transportation infrastructure spending has become an unnecessary political football tossed about by Governor Malloy. Towns maintain more than 17,000 miles of roads, far more than the state’s ~4,100 miles. $30 million of much needed money for towns to do immediate things like pothole repairs are being withheld, yet the Governor has no qualms about spending $95 million just for Hartford on parking garage and stadium repairs, and bailout funds. How does that help us here in northeast CT?

Connecticut’s economy has not fully recovered from the Great Recession and many job gains have not been to the same pay/benefit levels as were enjoyed pre-recession. Growing the economy, not stunting it, is needed. I understand the need for public transportation infrastructure and the role it plays. I know it requires money. Tolls and tax increases are not the answers. State government has not earned taking more of your money because it has not tackled the real problem of how it spends your money. Until it does so, taking more money in the form of taxes does not help anyone, including all our families.

 

Jeffrey A. Gordon, M.D

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