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We Must Raise Connecticut's Gas Tax To Fix Roads, Bridges


March 08, 2012

Last year, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy proposed a 3-cent-per-gallon increase in the state's gas tax. The General Assembly rejected it out of hand. This year, the lawmakers had better find the courage to pass it, politically unpopular though it may be. The state's roads and bridges need to be repaired, and the people who repair them don't work for free.

That the state faces major transportation challenges ought to be obvious to anyone who drives, bikes, walks or rides buses or trains. To wit:

•75 percent of Connecticut's roads are in "less than good" condition and 34 percent of the state's bridges rank as "deficient," according to the Federal Highway Administration.

•Pedestrians and cyclists face unnecessary fatalities and injuries because of outdated road designs that favor (speeding) automobiles over other users of the road.

•Record transit ridership is challenging a creaking transit system.

Step one in solving these challenges is to invest our transportation dollars wisely. This means repairing our existing roads and bridges rather than building new ones, and improving our bus and rail systems so that more people have an alternative to the car. Our transit systems support town centers. Development there means less demand for new infrastructure to subsidize inefficient, sprawling development patterns.

But, as was highlighted a transportation finance forum this winter, no matter how strategic our decision-making, Connecticut's elected officials will still need to make tough decisions about transportation funding. If they don't, Connecticut's transportation network will continue to deteriorate, hindering economic development and burdening our environment.

For years, elected officials have diverted millions of dollars from the main source of transportation revenue — gas taxes — to other state initiatives, a practice that has hobbled the ability to maintain transportation infrastructure. The fact that the state gas tax stands at 15 cents less than it was in 1998 hasn't helped shore up Connecticut's transportation system, either.

Connecticut has relied heavily — some would say too heavily — on federal funds for highways, bridges and other infrastructure. For example, 54 percent of the state's current transit funding comes from federal sources. That revenue stream could slow to a trickle if the transportation bills being discussed in Congress become law. Highway funding will be level at best. The proposal before the House would slash transit funding, a prospect that does not bode well for the state.

The transportation bill being discussed in the Senate is somewhat better for transit riders, but would cut dedicated funding for bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure by about 30 percent from current levels. The House version of the bill could be even worse for safe street infrastructure: It would eliminate dedicated pedestrian safety programs such as those that create safer walking routes to schools. This translates to real dollars lost from Connecticut's transportation coffers. In 2011, at least 75 percent of Connecticut's funding for bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure came from Washington.

Although Gov. Malloy's proposed budget adjustment diverts revenues generated from recent hikes in bus and rail fares to uses other than transit, he did ensure that nearly $100 million more of the existing wholesale tax on gasoline went to its original purpose, transportation, in last year's budget. The reason the state needs the 3-cent hike in the gas tax is to generate $45 million to support a year's worth of the state's "Fix-it-First" bridge program, which rehabilitates aging bridges. Some of these bridges have to be fixed now.

Because federal funding is increasingly unpredictable, the state must decrease its dependence on Washington. The 3-cent gas tax increase is a first step. The state must also look at other financing tools, such as congestion pricing or tolling of existing limited-access highways to support our transportation system into the future. These options will help create a fair, balanced and sustainable system — one that could be less reliant on the gas tax — for the future.

Facing the revenue problem for transportation now is critical for the economic success and quality of life of our state.

Ryan Lynch is the policy director for the Tri-State Transportation Campaign, a nonprofit policy watchdog group; Lyle Wray serves as executive director of the Capitol Region Council of Governments, serving 30 municipalities in north-central Connecticut.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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