There Is No Free Pony

"Getting There," a weekly column about transportation

Early in our parenting my wife and I taught our daughter about the difference between wanting something and needing something.  She might want a pony but did she need one?  And most importantly, what was she willing to do to get that pony.  “Ponies aren’t free,” we would remind her.

The same things are true for transportation, our climate and our health.

A recent poll was released, commissioned by the Transportation Climate Initiative.  The name explains their mission: saving our climate by encouraging increased use of mass transit, electric vehicles and less use of fossil fuels.

We all know that air pollution affects our health, right?  According to TCI, auto emissions now surpass pollution from power plants.  That exhaust is especially dangerous to minority populations in dense urban areas, the same folks being hit the hardest by COVID.  So air pollution’s health effects and longer-term damage to our climate now have a social justice component.

The TCI poll of 3800 voters in eight northeast states and the District of Columbia asked the usual questions and obtained the usual results.  It was as if they’d asked “wouldn’t you like a pony?”

Yes, said respondents, we want cleaner air, more money spent on fixing our transportation system and we want more trains and buses running faster and at greater frequencies.  We all want a pony.  Lots of ponies!

But who’s going to feed them and clean their stalls?

The TCI proposal is to make driving more expensive by raising the gasoline tax 5 to 17 cents a gallon at the pump as well as taxing the oil companies for the pollution their products create.  It’s simply known in the climate biz as “cap and trade”.

For almost a year TCI has floated their detailed plan to various New England governors, including Connecticut’s Ned Lamont, a year ago.  But Lamont initially rejected it, as did several others.  But now the governor seems to have changed his mind, signing on to the plan with other states.  But again, who will pay for all this?

After shirking their legislative duties for the past ten months, lawmakers will skulk back into the Capitol in January, hopefully well masked.  Among the initiatives they will have to address is finding new revenue for the Special Transportation Fund, which is teetering on the brink of a deficit by mid-2021. 

Given that tolls are off the table and nobody wants to raise sales taxes, it looks like a modest bump in the gasoline tax is the least unattractive alternative.  After all, the gasoline tax hasn’t changed a penny since 1997 and with fuel prices so low, who’d notice?

Patrick Sasser has noticed.  As leader of the successful No Tolls CT movement he’s already pushing back.  Sasser says no to any kind of tax increase, claiming the state is fiscally irresponsible in the way it spends our tax money.  He actually suggests lowering the gasoline tax.

But the TCI poll showed that 67% of Connecticut responders supported the idea of cap and trade… at least as it was explained to them in the phone survey.  But I doubt those polled truly understood the question, nor were they told what it might really cost them.

We all want those mythical ponies of better transportation, cleaner air and improved health.  But are we ready to pay for them?

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media

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