The Land of Steady Habits Struggles to Keep an Open Mind on Transportation Funding

When Connecticut Governor Dan Malloy assembled a team of experts tasked with finding ways to finance his 30-year transportation vision, he encouraged them to consider all the options. Unfortunately, members of the General Assembly haven’t viewed the process with the same open-mindedness.

At its July 29 meeting, members of the Governor’s Transportation Finance Panel discussed the concept of a mileage tax (also known as a VMT, or vehicle miles traveled, tax), which Commuter Action Group Founder Jim Cameron argues is the fairest way to raise transportation revenue:

The concept is simple: have each motorist pay a tax for the number of miles he/she drives each year. The data could be collected electronically by GPS or with an odometer check when you get your annual emissions inspection. You drive more, you pay more… whether you drive on I-95 or back-country roads. Take mass transit, you’d drive less and pay less.

Unlike highway tolls, taxing miles traveled spreads the burden across the entire state. And unlike with fuel taxes, mileage-based taxes only become less potent when drivers shift trips to other modes — not when vehicle technology improves. Drivers of more fuel-efficient vehicles still benefit from lower fuel costs, but even the drivers of the “greenest” cars still contribute to traffic congestion and wear and tear on roads.

The concept certainly isn’t perfect. For whatever advantages a VMT tax may have over fuel taxes, the panel should consider the fact that out-of-state drivers who use Connecticut’s roads wouldn’t pay a dime. And there’s also the question about drivers who live near the state line and do much of their driving on roads in New York, Rhode Island or Massachusetts. This gets back to the need for the panel to consider all the options.

Even though the panel is still only in the discussion stage, and won’t offer any recommendations until October, Republican lawmakers pounced on the mileage tax discussion and labeled it a Democratic proposal (the panel is bipartisan).

State Senator Toni Boucher of Fairfield County penned an op-ed expressing opposition to the mileage tax, not necessarily because it would impact her constituents, but because she believes “the middle-income and working-poor families who can’t afford to live in Fairfield County” would be most burdened. It’s a fair point, but perhaps Senator Boucher’s crusade against the VMT tax (or tolls, for that matter) would be more effective if it were someone else’s crusade. Connecticut’s 26th Senatorial District includes some of the wealthiest communities not just in Connecticut, but also in the nation. The median household income in Connecticut is $69,461. In Senator Boucher’s district, it’s closer to $150,000*.

A Tri-State Transportation Campaign analysis of Census data also revealed that about 76 percent** of commuters in Senator Boucher’s district commute via automobile — significantly lower than the 87 percent in Connecticut as a whole and 86 percent nationally. And that number appears to be falling; the Bridgeport-Stamford-Norwalk metropolitan area (coterminous with Fairfield County) saw a 2.8 percent decrease in automobile commuting between 2006 and 2013. Maybe instead of waging war against virtually any user fee for drivers, Senator Boucher should direct her efforts toward better transit service. After all, her district is home to more Metro-North stations than any other senatorial district in the state.

*Median household incomes in the seven towns in the 26th Senatorial District, according to 2013 Census data: Bethel, $85,589; Redding, $119,112; Ridgefield, $147,993; Westport, $160,106; New Canaan, $161,848; Wilton, $167,094; Weston, $207,262. Average of these figures is $149,858.

**Census blocks that are roughly aligned with the 26th Senatorial District were analyzed, figure includes commuters who carpool as well as those who drive alone.

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