A disappearing act: Connecticut’s transportation funding

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In news that shouldn’t surprise anybody, Hartford politicians and bureaucrats have spent this past month declaring the state “desperately” needs more money. By now, Connecticut residents attuned to this rhetoric realize that “new revenue sources” just means “more taxes.”  The proposed remedy in this case: tolls.

DOT Commissioner James Redeker recently toured the state proclaiming that the Special Transportation Fund (STF), money that is funded by one of the highest gas taxes in the country and purportedly reserved solely for transportation, is out of money and only tolls can save it.  Gov. Dannel Malloy dovetailed this talking point with his recent announcement that he was suspending indefinitely nearly 400 infrastructure repair and improvement projects across the state. The Co-Chair of the Transportation Committee, a perennial toll proponent, also just held a press conference to repeat his message about how all of our neighboring states have tolls and that we are missing out on a vast funding source.

The clear objective here is to maximize commuters’ pain and pressure them into giving the state more money.

I believe that one of the core functions of government is to maintain our infrastructure and, at first glance, charging motorists for using our highways in order to maintain them makes some sense.  Many out-of-state drivers use our roads, plus, there is the inescapable reality that Connecticut appears mired in this historic financial crisis for the foreseeable future.  The electronic tolling proposal also seems to reduce the risk of rampant traffic jams and accidents at tolling plazas.

While all of that may be true, before the legislature starts fantasizing about how they would spend all of this magical toll money, we have to first evaluate how we spend the money we already have.

A 2016 study by the Reason Foundation found that Connecticut ranked 44th in cost effectiveness for highway performance – we spend nearly $480,000 for each mile of road in this state as opposed to the national average, which is just over $180,000 per mile.  Why is it that we pay such a premium on transportation yet we have some of the worst roads in the country?  Study after study has found our state’s infrastructure to be among the worst in the country, including a comprehensive US News & World report that named Connecticut’s transportation system 3rd worst in the nation overall, with the very worst road quality out of all 50 states in 2016.

Taking a closer look at our spending, we find that one of the black holes into which this money sinks is in the realm of administrative costs.  The Reason Foundation reports that Connecticut spent more than $83,000 per mile in administrative costs, compared with $10,000 nationally, benefiting public sector union members while taxpaying commuters sit in daily traffic on our antiquated highways.

Administrative costs clearly diminish the return on our transportation investment, but that is not the only issue. Connecticut still outspends the national average by $250,000 per mile.  That’s because what we do spend is too often on ill-advised projects.

During the last seven years, Connecticut spent $567 million on a new busway from New Britain to Hartford that costs $17.5 million to operate each year, and whose light ridership has left observers confused as to why government would fund such a pointless project. Another example is the more than $1 billion spent on the still-incomplete Hartford to Springfield rail line, which is expected to cost $27 million each year to operate.  Frustratingly, the $155 million the state bonded for this project in 2016 would have covered almost all of the costs for repairs needed to the Metro-North New Haven Line.

Compounding high administrative costs and misguided projects is the legislature’s periodic raiding of the Special Transportation Fund to balance its bloated budget. Since 2000, approximately $160 million has been raided and swept into the General Fund, leaving the STF $46 million in debt.  Without a true “lockbox,” the legislature has proven itself willing to spend STF monies on whatever it wishes.

Before we consider inflicting a de facto tax increase on our residents – which tolls absolutely would represent – there must be a serious reevaluation of how Connecticut prioritizes infrastructure projects and how costs of these projects are calculated.  Without examining excessive operating costs, rejecting foolhardy projects, and committing to an unbreakable lockbox, installing tolls would just capture more taxpayer dollars that the legislature will inevitably make disappear.

State Rep. Richard Smith represents the 108th district, which includes parts of Danbury, New Fairfield, New Milford and all of Sherman.  He is Ranking Member of the General Assembly’s General Law Committee, and a member of the Judiciary Committee and the Labor and Public Employees Committee.

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