Highway tolls in Connecticut have become a game of whack-a-mole. Gov. Ned Lamont’s toll mole has popped up again, just two weeks after having been whacked summarily by General Assembly leaders of his own party. The current mole is a variant of the governor’s original trucks-only campaign proposal. Things have gone full circle.
The game started with candidate Lamont’s vague trucks-only plan. Once inaugurated, Lamont whacked his own proposal, saying that truck tolls alone wouldn’t raise enough money. He added cars, and presented a sketchy eight-page plan with a smothering network of as many as 80 gantry locations on 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, Lamont gave his own plan another 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. Curious. The captain threatened to abandon his own team in favor of the opposing squad. Predictably, but to the freshman governor’s surprised chagrin, his threat didn’t revive his toll mole.
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 … ah, plan. After Labor Day, the governor spent weeks trying fruitlessly to secure Democratic support in closed door meetings. Finally, in November, 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 placed. A few days later, Democratic leaders in the General Assembly held a formal news 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 that his original trucks-only plan was rejected last winter by everyone, including the governor himself.
First, just like the original trucks-only scheme, the new 14 gantry version won’t raise much money, only $180 million annually, or about 9 percent of the total cost of Lamont’s $21 billion 10-year transportation plan.
Second, the still ongoing federal court litigation challenging the trucks-only 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 seem to have superficially popular appeal. However, it trucks are an elemental part of a healthy business environment and economy. Raising Connecticut’s already high transportation costs won’t help retain or attract businesses. Moreover, many truckers are Connecticut-based owner-operators, who may be forced out of business.
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, his unforced error may kill any comity and, with it, any cooperation on the rails part of his transportation plan, namely speeding Metro-North 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, offering happy talk to do something today that enables him to do the opposite tomorrow.
Sixth and finally, the reality is that toll money will never be used for transportation. Lamont is already diverting money from the Special Transportation Fund. Diversion of 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, 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 percent of Connecticut citizens opposed tolls. That’s about two toll-mole whackers to one toll supporter. Let the new round of whacking begin.
As first appeared in:
- CT Examiner (Nov. 30, 2019)
- Hearst Connecticut Newspapers (Dec. 2, 2019)
- The Republican-American (Dec. 5, 2019)
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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, USA Today, The Hill, Issues & Insights and National Review as well as many Connecticut newspapers.