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January 31, 2012

The Five Biggest Lies About Highway Tolls


Like it or not, get ready to pay tolls on our Interstates and Parkways.  Transportation officials in Hartford say there’s just no other way to raise badly needed money for over-due infrastructure repairs.  Tolls may not be popular, but neither are collapsing bridges.
In the last decade’s debate on highway tolling, here are the five biggest lies that opponents have used to stall the return of highway tolls:

1)    The Federal Government Won’t Let Us:  Also known as “We’ll have to return millions in federal funding”.  Not true, as US DOT officials told us at a SWRPA-sponsored meeting in Westport years ago.  The federal government regularly allows tolls to be used as traffic mitigation and revenue raising tools.
2)    Our Highways Should Be Free:  So should ice cream and donuts.  Nothing is free, including the cost of repairing I-95 and removing snow from the Merritt.  Gasoline taxes come nowhere near to raising the needed revenue. Driving is a privilege, not a right. It should come with a cost.
3)    Tolls Will Slow Traffic:  It’s not 1965 anymore.  Tolling doesn’t require highway-wide barriers with booths and gates.  Just look at the NJ Turnpike or Garden State Parkway, where barrier-free tolls using EZPass allow you to pay at 55 mph.
4)    Tollbooths Cause Accidents:   See #3 above.  This happened once, 29 years ago, in Milford, and was used as an excuse to end tolling in the state.  If toll barriers are unsafe, why don’t fiery truck crashes happen daily at the hundreds of other toll barriers around the US?
5)    Highway Tolls Will Divert Traffic to Local Roads:    This may be true, for about the first week.  If people would rather drive for free on the Boston Post Road than pay 50 cents to save an hour by taking I-95, let ‘em.  Few drivers are that cheap, or stupid.

Trust me, I know about tolls and toll booths. I spent three summers in college working as a toll collector on the Tappan Zee Bridge.  The toll was only 50 cents to cross the mighty Hudson, but people still didn’t like paying it.  (Today the toll is $5).

Connecticut pioneered toll roads as early as the late 18th century.  But today our state is facing billions in over-due bridge and highway repairs.  And federal aid for transportation may be cut from $469 million to $301 million. So why are we in this current mess?  Who’s to blame?  Us! 
We’re the ones that stupidly pushed CT lawmakers to cut the gas tax 14 cents a gallon in 1997.  And we’re the ones making it political suicide for legislators today to say they support tolls, even though they know tolls are inevitable.

Pick your poison:  “free” driving on pothole-filled highways with collapsing bridges… or pay a few bucks for a safe, speedy ride.   I vote for the tolls.

January 16, 2012

Congress to Commuters: "Drop Dead"


Back in 1975 when New York City was teetering on the brink of bankruptcy, then- President Ford declined to offer help and the NY Daily News’ headline screamed “Ford to City: Drop Dead”.

Well, last month the US Congress said about the same thing to us users of mass transit.  In their quagmire of inaction, bickering and partisanship, they let expire an important tax benefit to commuters:  whether you drove or took mass transit, you used to be able to spend up to $230 a month in pre-tax dollars to fund your commute.  But by not acting to extend the law, that benefit dropped to $125 a month for riders of mass transit but increased to $240 a month for drivers’ parking expenses.

What?  Commuters who ride the train / bus /subway get screwed but drivers get a benefits hike?  Yes, friends, it’s all true and you have Congress to thank.

This isn’t a red-state / blue-state issue.  I see it as a “gray state” victory, the gray states being those paved with asphalt that have scorned mass transit.  Meanwhile, big city riders of the rails get penalized.

There’s something egalitarian about mass transit… millionaires riding in the same smelly Metro-North cars as blue collar workers.  People of color actually mingling with white folks!  It’s like we’re all in this together, sharing space, giving up our individual liberties (smoking, singing, traveling exactly when we want) for the greater good (less highway congestion, air pollution, saving money).

People in the gray states don’t understand that.  Theirs is a culture of selfishness:  my car, my space, my right to travel where I want and when, to heck with you.  Oh yeah, and the right to have free parking (or at least subsidized, as under this bill).

Connecticut commuters welcomed the New Year with a 5.25% fare hike on Metro-North (with similar fare hikes to come the next two years), thanks to the Malloyadministration seeing rail riders as an easy target for “revenue enhancement”.  So losing this federal tax benefit is just adding insult to injury.

The Federal government doesn’t do much in terms of our commuter rail.  They didn’t pay a penny for the new M8 cars.  They don’t set the fares, determine the station parking rules or set the timetable.  All of those are state functions.  (Sure, the feds did kick some Tiger III grant money to Stamford for station work, but aside from that, nada.)

That’s why Senators Blumenthal and Lieberman are trying to restore this federal taxbenefit, the one thing they can do to help us commuters.  They’ve been flooded with angry letters.  Their bill (S-1034) has 10 co-sponsors but so far hasn’t won support from their colleagues who matter, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) and Ranking Member Orrin Hatch (R-Utah).  Not a lot of commuter rail in Montana and Utah, eh?

Time will tell if Congress can fix this mess.  I’m not optimistic, despite the best efforts of our Connecticut delegation.

For more information  on what you can do, visit this website