In 2016, after New Jersey’s Transportation Trust Fund dried up and construction projects across the state were shut down, Governor Christie and legislative leaders finally did something many assumed would never happen: they agreed to raise the state’s gas tax, which until last year was the second-lowest in the nation. It had been 28 years since New Jersey’s last gas tax increase.
Last week Connecticut lawmakers learned that the state’s Special Transportation Fund is heading toward a similar fate, so it’s no surprise to see highway tolls are experiencing a bit of a revival in the General Assembly. Connecticut is the only east coast state between North Carolina and Maine that doesn’t currently charge highway tolls. And coincidentally, it has been — you guessed it — 28 years since the last highway toll was paid in Connecticut.
The Transportation Committee of the Connecticut General Assembly held a hearing this week which was largely focused on tolls and road pricing (four different tolling bills have been proposed this session, along with another bill concerning variable pricing lanes). While many testified in support, including TSTC partners Connecticut Construction Industries Association and the Connecticut Fund for the Environment, some who spoke in opposition voiced concerns about border tolls. That’s a bit of red herring, not only because none of the bills proposed this session call for tolls at the state’s borders, but also because Connecticut doesn’t have the authority to charge drivers tolls at its borders. Don Stacom reports in the Hartford Courant:
The [Federal Highway Administration] restricts states from tolling interstates, but has relaxed its rules in recent years. It notified the DOT on Thursday that Connecticut could install tolls without repaying previous federal aid – or losing future grants – under the right circumstances. Border tolls wouldn’t be acceptable, but a system aimed at reducing traffic congestion would be, it said.
Congestion pricing is a relatively new concept, so naturally there was some confusion among lawmakers at this week’s hearing about how such a system would actually work. While there is a general understanding that toll prices would go up during peak travel times (and down during off-peak hours), lawmakers appeared skeptical when supporters argued that congestion pricing is more equitable than conventional tolling. After all, most commuters aren’t able to change their work hours to save money on tolls. It wouldn’t be the first time Connecticut lawmakers were confused about tolling, but in this case it’s because nobody at the hearing was able to explain how congestion pricing works.
Unlike traditional tolling schemes where drivers pay to use a particular highway (like the Massachusetts Turnpike) or facility (like the Lincoln Tunnel), congestion pricing, as its name would suggest, is meant to be deployed in locations where there is a great deal of congestion. While it’s true that congestion pricing aims to reduce demand for road space during peak hours, it’s obvious that most workers aren’t able to shift when they commute. So the redistribution of vehicle travel assumes that some trips are purely discretionary, resulting in less congested roads for people who have less flexibility in when they travel.
But that’s not even the best part. The real strength of congestion pricing is that it can shift not just when people travel, but how they travel. This means that in order to be successful, congestion pricing should be implemented only where there are alternatives to driving.
Connecticut’s two most congested highway corridors also happen to have frequent, reliable transit nearby. Interstate 95 in Fairfield County runs alongside the Northeast Corridor, where Metro-North New Haven Line trains run as frequently as every 15-20 minutes during the morning and evening peak hours, and Interstate 84 in Metro Hartford runs parallel to the CTfastrak bus rapid transit corridor, where buses run as frequently as every seven minutes at rush hour. There’s no commuter rail line between rural Thompson, Connecticut and Webster, Massachusetts where Interstate 395 crosses the state line, nor is there bus rapid transit service along I-84 between Danbury and Putnam County, New York. Having options is what makes congestion pricing equitable.
Thanks to the advent of all electronic, open road toll collection systems, there’s no reason to fear a repeat of the January 1983 tragedy in Stratford. Failure to re-establish tolls, however, could result in a different kind of tragedy — one more like what happened five months later in Greenwich.