Roughly 50 years ago, Connecticut built highway bridges with a 50-year life span. At about the same time, the state and New York took over commuter rail service that ran on the bones of a century-old railroad.
So perhaps it is not surprising that the state faces $3 billion in transportation infrastructure improvement projects.
Unfortunately, the state doesn't have the $3 billion.
If transportation funding isn't another fiscal cliff, it's at least a steep hill. At both the state and federal levels, the cost of transportation is outstripping the funding mechanisms created to pay for it.
Forget Federal Funds
The federal Highway Trust Fund has been essentially bankrupt since 2008. It brings in about $90 billion a year, but the federal government spends about $140 billion on roads, bridges, airports and transit, so the general budget has to make up the difference. This adds to the country's deficit and, things being as they are in Washington, is not likely to continue.
The federal gas tax of 18.4 cents per gallon isn't bringing in enough money to pay the bills, but Congress has not had the will to raise the tax, even to adjust it for inflation, since 1993. That and other funding ideas are being talked about, though action is not seen as imminent.
This year Congress passed a two-year transportation funding bill, which kept funding stable but did not address the long-term solvency of the Highway Trust Fund. If there is a cut in federal funding after 2014, the effect on Connecticut, which historically has relied heavily on federal transportation funding, could be devastating.
The state's situation bears similarities to Washington's. State officials created the Special Transportation Fund in 1984, primarily supported by a gas tax. It was supposed to be in a lock box, but someone at the General Assembly got hold of the key. The fund has been tapped over the years to balance the general budget.
Also, the state lowered the gas tax from 39 to 25 cents beginning in the late 1990s. The state would have the needed $3 billion if the tax had been left at 39 cents and the fund left alone. The combination of less driving and more fuel-efficient cars is now lowering the take from the gas tax.
The long and short is that the state has some key projects it must do — upgrade the New Haven rail line, replace the I-84 viaducts in Hartford and Waterbury, among others — and for which it does not have the money.
So, the state is going to have to raise more of its own money for transportation. It won't be easy.
Try A Better Pitch
There was some talk about tolls at a recent forum at the state Capitol sponsored by Transit for Connecticut, a coalition of 30 groups coordinated by the Connecticut Fund for the Environment. Tolls are a direct user fee, a fair way to pay for roads and bridges. But under an antiquated federal law, states that have abandoned their highway tolls, such as Connecticut, generally cannot bring them back on interstate highways.
Connecticut can toll intrastate highways, new bridges (we blew the chance to toll the new Q bridge in New Haven) and new lanes in some cases, but not interstates. It would take a change in federal law.
The gas tax is also a user fee but, as at the federal level, raising it is politically difficult. Gov. Malloy proposed a 3 cent increase last year, and it went nowhere.
What's needed is marketing. Most people aren't stupid; they understand that transportation is essential to the state's economy and quality of life, that it costs money and that the money doesn't come from the tooth fairy. But they need to know what they are paying for.
Voters around the country approved more than three-quarters of transit referendums in the past five years, even if it has meant taxing themselves.
The takeaway: Voters might not approve $100 million for "infrastructure," but they might go for a "one-hour ride to New York."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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