Gov. Ned Lamont is poised to re-launch his highly unpopular tolls plan, revised to reduce tolling to a rumored 16 to 18 gantries located only on bridges in need of repair. So what happened to the governor’s concern with traffic congestion? Repairing bridges, however necessary, won’t relieve congestion.
It could be that Lamont is holding a Tolls 2.0 plan at the ready, including the remainder of his original 59 gantries and his trademark congestion pricing scheme, ready to be sprung on the public once he’s established his 16-18 gantry beach head.
In anticipation of Tolls 2.0, it’s worth reminding our wealthy governor of the obvious: Most people on congested rush hour roads are driving to work. So, tolls are effectively a payroll tax. Moreover, congestion pricing wouldn’t reduce congestion, because people can’t be late to work — they can’t wait for lower toll rates later on.
Ironically, there’s a simple tax-free way to reduce congestion, and it is already in use across the state. School districts employ staggered “school bell times.” Preschools start at one time, elementary schools at another, and middle schools and high schools at yet other times. This avoids local traffic jams and optimizes bus utilization
The state could follow the same approach, mandating that municipalities and major employers collaborate to devise staggered work days. In Hartford, Aetna could begin its day at 8:15 a.m., while CIGNA in neighboring Bloomfield could start at 9 a.m. and most state employees might be required to show up at 7:30 a.m.
If local school boards can accomplish this kind of system planning, why can’t local governments and major employers?
The Department of Transportation collects, or should collect, the aggregate highway traffic data required to measure the effectiveness of various voluntary plans adopted by cities and towns. Perhaps extra municipal aid might be awarded to the top performing municipalities in a modified “Race to Decongestion,” just as extra federal education funds were awarded to states which implemented President Obama’s desired education policies under his Race to the Top program.
It might be necessary to buttress the competition with corporate tax incentives. Large employers might suffer tax penalties if they did not participate or be rewarded with tax credits if they did. Local traffic departments could collect more granular traffic data collection systems to guide fair assessment of penalties and awarding of credits.
Simple planning can succeed where congestion pricing, also known as “demand based” pricing, can’t. Congestion pricing doesn’t work because individuals cannot make adjustments. Staggered work days work because organizations can make the adjustments that individuals cannot. In economic terms, individual demand is not elastic, while organizational demand is.
If tolls can’t solve traffic problems, then their only real purpose is to raise revenue. Tolls are taxes. Moreover, it’s reasonable to doubt Lamont’s commitment to using them to fund transportation projects — right now, Lamont is diverting car sales tax revenue that his predecessor dedicated to the Special Transportation Fund.
Unfortunately for the governor and Democrats, an overwhelming majority of the citizenry understands this reality and opposes tolls. The opposition is widespread and well reasoned.
Nevertheless, if tolls are included in Lamont’s new transportation plan, it is almost certain that the governor will be back with Tolls 2.0.
First, He will need revenue, and he won’t raise much with his initial scattering of 16-19 tolls with the 50 cent to one-dollar toll rates rumored to be in his plan. Second, his plan won’t do much about traffic congestion.
Ironically, these failures may help the governor sell Tolls 2.0 by exploiting the public’s increased exasperation with worsened traffic congestion to overcome its lowered resistance to tolls, induced by the deceptively low penny-ante bridge tolls.
Apparently, Lamont is trying to entice GOP legislators to support the tolls in his new transportation initiative. No one should fall for it — not now, not in the future. Instead, the GOP should tell Lamont and the Democrats to cut spending, starting with the overgenerous, unaffordable and unfair benefits of active and retired state employees.
Red Jahncke is president of The Townsend Group International, a business consulting firm in Greenwich. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Red Jahncke is a nationally recognized columnist, who writes about politics and policy. His columns appear in numerous national publications, such as The Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg, and USA Today, as well as many Connecticut newspapers.
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