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Opinion: The Ongoing Game of Whack-a-Toll

in Columns/Transportation

Highway tolls in Connecticut have become a game of whack-a-mole. Governor Lamont’s toll mole has popped up again, after having been whacked summarily by General Assembly leaders of his own party less than two weeks ago. The current mole is a variant of the Governor’s original trucks-only campaign proposal. Things have gone full circle.

The whole toll mole game started with candidate Lamont’s vague trucks-only plan. Lamont whacked his own proposal after his inauguration, saying that truck tolls alone wouldn’t raise enough money. He added cars, and presented a sketchy 8-page plan with a smothering network of as many as 80 gantry locations on both interstate and state highways.

Fierce public opposition and insufficient Democratic support whacked this proposal, but Lamont’s toll mole popped back up again as about 60 gantries in a system stripped of all state highways, except the Merritt Parkway.

When this mole was whacked by continuing public opposition and Democratic intransigence, once again Lamont gave his own plan a good whack, this time by threatening his fellow Democrats that he’d adopt the GOP’s toll-less transportation plan if Democrats didn’t accede to tolls. A curious whack indeed, with the captain threatening to abandon his own team in favor of the opposing squad.  Predictably, but to the freshman governor’s chagrin, his threat didn’t spare his toll mole continued whacking by the public and his fellow Democrats.

That’s where the game was at the end of the legislative session before intermission over the summer.

The Lamont team spent halftime preparing a much smaller and more detailed mole… uh, plan. After Labor Day, the governor spent weeks trying fruitlessly to secure Democratic support in closed door meetings. Finally, earlier this month, Lamont introduced the new plan, with a drastically reduced number of just 14 gantries and a new rational of using toll revenue only to fund repair and replacement of bridges at which tolls were to be located. A few days later, Democratic leaders in the General Assembly held a formal press conference to wield the hammer and pound the living daylights out of the new mole.

Then, in a marvel of Newtonian physics (every action has an equal and opposite reaction), Lamont’s toll mole popped back up just days later with the full support of the Democratic legislative leadership team. It is the same 14-bridge plan, except it is now back to the trucks-only scheme. Good grief.

This new-old plan is even more marvelous in demonstrating how amazingly short memories can be. How could Lamont & Co. have forgotten all the reasons this plan was rejected by everyone, including the governor himself. Here they are. They’ll be the hammers or mallets with which the populace will whack this new-old toll mole.

First, the original trucks-only scheme didn’t raise enough money when it was going to be as many as 80 gantries. With only 14 gantries, it is projected to raise only $180 million annually, or about 9% of the total cost of Lamont’s $21 billion ten-year plan.

Second, the federal court litigation challenging the trucks-only schema is ongoing. It was a leading reason that the first trucks-only plan was abandoned. But maybe Lamont & Co. have thought about it and realized that becoming part of the case and losing it might “force” them to add cars back to the mix. Crocodile tears.

Third, demonizing trucks may have superficially popular appeal. However, it forgets that trucks are an elemental part of a healthy business environment and economy. Transportation costs for businesses in Connecticut are already high. Raising them further won’t help keep business in-state or attract it. Moreover, many truckers are Connecticut-based owner-operators, i.e. small businesses that are the backbone of a vibrant economy.

Fourth, one of the bridges to be tolled is a “bridge” on about a 1.5 mile stretch of I-684, which otherwise runs entirely in New York State. The “bridge” is hardly a bridge at all; it is mostly pylons over a swamp.

This would be humorous, except that New Yorkers reacted in predictable outrage calling Lamont’s plan highway robbery —bilking New Yorkers when, for an instant, they have crossed unknowingly over the border. It would be the only toll on I-684. After Lamont spent so much time courting New York Governor Cuomo, this unforced error may kill any comity and, with it, any cooperation on  the rails part of Lamont’s transportation plan, namely speeding MetroNorth rail service to New York City.

Fifth, in one of his trademark gaffes, Lamont gave away his real plan, saying “Let’s start with trucks.” “Start” can only mean he intends to include cars soon enough. Once again, Lamont is acting like a weasel, who offers happy talk to do something today that enables him to do the opposite tomorrow.

And that leads to the sixth hammer, the reality that toll money will never be used for transportation. Despite Lamont’s claim that he will not divert money from the Special Transportation Fund, that’s exactly what he’s doing right now. Diversion of transportation funds is the one consistent element of all the governor’s many transportation plans. He began by planning to divert $1.2 billion of car sales taxes over five years, revenue that his predecessor Dannel Malloy had dedicated to the STF. In face of universal protests, he backed off. He is only diverting $58 million in his current two year budget. He is promising not to divert any of this revenue in future budgets, Scout’s Honor. Do you believe him?

The last Quinnipiac Poll found that 58% of Connecticut citizens opposed tolls. That’s two toll-mole whackers to one toll supporter. Let the new round of whacking begin.