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May 18, 2009

Gridlock in Hartford

I’ve written many times before of failed efforts to fix our transportation mess… how the only money being spent is not on solutions but on endless studies and consultant reports whose recommendations go unheeded.

Now we’re about to see another example as the Transportation Strategy Board is expected to do nothing with suggestions for electronic-tolling of our congested roads to mitigate congestion and raise badly need funds.

After commissioning a $1 million, 500-page study of the issue, the TSB is expected to say that the idea of “value pricing” our interstates needs, you guessed it, yet more study!

I could tell the fix was in when, even before the consultants delivered their million dollar baby, Governor Rell said she was against tolling.

And don’t expect any leadership on this issue from lawmakers, unable to write a budget let alone show the courage to face a controversial issue like tolls.

As one transportation expert says, the eight year old Transportation Strategy Board has turned into a “debating club”, endlessly talking but doing nothing. Their meetings get little attention and most members attend only sporadically. How would you like try making an 8 am weekday meeting in Hartford, so scheduled that even CT-N can’t cover it.

With a decimated corps of Capitol newspaper reporters, who’s to cover such important discussions? And local media coverage to date has been either shallow or factually inaccurate.

The idea of bringing back tolls has been discussed for almost a decade. Yet every newspaper report about their elimination in 1983 always mentions the firey truck crash at the Stratford toll barrier that killed seven, as if toll barriers are just waiting to get hit.

Current tolling technology eliminates toll booths and their delays, but the mis-reporting continues. So much for what passes for journalism these days. Stories about “killer chimps” make the front page for days on end, while the real news goes unreported.

When the TSB received its $1 million consultant report, outlining nine different tolling options, the board scheduled public hearings across the state… except in Fairfield County. Little was done to explain what the consultants suggested, despite pleas for informational meetings.

So when 50 concerned citizens turned out last week in Norwalk for a last-minute public hearing, their opinions were mostly based on inaccurate media coverage. Few had read or even knew about the 500-page report, summarized at the hearing in a one-page handout.

It’s almost as if the TSB wanted the plan to die.

I’m all for a good debate, but if you don’t educate the public, should their opinions be taken seriously?

One after another, people called tolls a hidden “tax”. They were so cynical that they didn’t believe tolls would do anything to improve traffic (they would). Some called for higher tolls on out-of-staters (illegal). Two who spoke noted the connection between traffic and affordable housing. And one suggested investing in more cars for Metro-North, paid for by employers, their exteriors wrapped in ads for the companies.

Resulting media coverage ignored those, like me, who spoke in favor of tolling. The headlines screamed “Commuters Speak Out Against Tolls” when they should have read “TSB Gets Uninformed Opinions on Unexplained Million Dollar Study”, but I guess that wouldn’t sell newspapers like stories of killer chimps.

Our state is in gridlock, not just on our roads but in our government. Nobody has the vision or the courage to do anything to change our situation, preferring to hide behind endless studies and consultant reports which then get ignored.

Debating the problem for a decade has done nothing. And there’s no sign that the TSB, the Governor or legislature will ever do anything about transportation except what they’re done so far… talk.

1 comment:

johninct said...

Jim,
I was the speaker from Greenwich who actually read the 500 page study. You are spot on about their inability to do anything and today's news, that TSB will not be recommending anything for now, proved your point. I do, however, not agree with your plea to the TSB that they "do something." I'm quite sure if they do border tolls at the NY I-95 border it will be a disaster if only 1/2 the cars they estimate pour through Port Chester and Byram. It's already a mess now. Your points about the ridiculous meeting format and public education were very good. There were what, maybe 5 people there who actually knew what they were commenting on?
I enjoy your columns in the Greenwich Post. Keep it up.
- John