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February 09, 2005

“Gas Taxes & Tolls Make Sense”

You’ve got to give her credit. Governor Rell’s first budget didn’t pander to citizens with popular spending initiatives. Instead, it was a much-needed, reality-check slap in the face as she called on lawmakers to raise the gasoline tax to support investment in transportation.

Nobody likes to pay higher taxes… unless we understand where the money’s being spent. That’s why Governor Rowland scored big points in 1997 when he persuaded the Legislature to cut gas taxes by fourteen cents. Everyone hated the gas tax, thinking it just flowed into some black-hole in Hartford. What Rowland didn’t tell us was that cut meant we lost revenue that was to have been spent on highways, bridges and trains. So the tax was cut… but did gasoline prices drop 14 cents? No way.

Many lawmakers, including former Speaker Moira Lyons and now-Lt. Governor Kevin Sullivan now admit that gas tax cut was a big mistake. I’ll give them points for 20/20 hindsight but wish they’d been smarter seven years ago.

Why do we need higher gas taxes? Ask anyone who rides Metro-North. The trains are falling apart, they break down in cold weather and many stations are in dismal shape. Why not ask commuters to pay for those repairs? We did… and hit them with 20% fare hikes over the past two years. Commuters in Connecticut now have the highest fares of any railroad in North America. We cannot ask them to pay more or we risk losing them to their cars. To work, mass transit has to be affordable.

Every resident in this state, even if they never ride commuter rail, will benefit from this proposed gas tax hike. The money those taxes raise will fix up the trains and keep fares down, encouraging (and, with more seats, allowing) greater use of mass transit. That will mean fewer cars on the road.

Ask anyone who’s traveled abroad and they’ll tell you: Gas is too cheap in this country. A few extra pennies in taxes will mean nothing to the average motorist, but they’ll mean plenty to our state’s future.

But, while courageous, the Governor’s budget is not enough. We don’t need hundreds of millions of dollars in bonding-power, we need billions.

How about tolls on I-95 and the Merritt? With an EZ-Pass system you won’t even need to stop. And with time-of-day pricing, just like the trains, we can offer discounts to those who drive outside of rush hour, giving an incentive for those who must drive, to avoid rush hour.

Forget about that myth that the Federal government won’t allow tolls without reimbursement for years of highway spending. It’s not true. And former CDOT Commissioner Emil Frankel, now working for the US Department of Transportation in Washington, has confirmed that.
Tolls were eliminated from I-95 and the Merritt Parkway for the wrong reason… a fiery truck crash at the Greenwich toll barrier. Like the gas tax, they weren’t popular. But they were necessary to the upkeep of the transportation infrastructure.

Now, with a funding source on the horizon, the Legislature can get on with the real task at hand… ordering new rail cars that we needed years ago. Once ordered, we’ll still have to wait five or six years for their delivery. Hang in there fellow-commuters. We’ve got a long way to go.


JIM CAMERON has been a Darien resident for 13 years. He is Vice Chairman of the CT Metro-North / Shore Line East Rail Commuter Council, and a member of the Coastal Corridor TIA and the Darien RTM. You can reach him at jim@camcomm.com or www.trainweb.org/ct

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