With no political consensus on tolls, we’re back to the starting gate, much to the chagrin of people who know full highway tolling makes the most sense. It’s too bad the Senate Democratic leadership won’t bring it to a vote, but that’s baseball for you.
Everything is back up for discussion. That, sources say, includes tolls for trucks only and tolls for bridges only. Truck tolling doesn’t work legally and it doesn’t raise enough money, as I wrote a year ago when then-candidate Ned Lamont insisted on it.
So that leaves bridges. Rather than droning on pointlessly about the politics of it, let’s take a look at how bridge tolling in Connecticut would actually work.
Here’s the short answer: Tolling a dozen “deficient” bridges – the number that’s being bandied about at the Capitol -- at 50 cents a trip for all vehicles would raise $210 million a year, before expenses. We could charge trucks a bit more, maybe bring it up to $250 million, but that’s the reasonable limit.
These are my calculations and deductions, not based on state sources.
I picked the dozen bridges based on four factors: They are listed as deficient (not unsafe, but in need of major repairs) based on studies that compile state and federal reports; they carry one of the state’s major highways, since it makes zero sense to toll a bridge on, say the Boston Post Road or any other regular surface road; they carry the largest number of vehicles among all of the roughly 300 bridges that are deficient on state and federal highways.
And finally, my 12 targeted bridges are spread reasonably around the state. For example, there’s a needy bridge along I-95 in West Haven over the Metro North tracks, and another one nearby along I-95 in New Haven, over the Quinnipiac River. We’re not going to toll both, that would be unfair.
Call the list I’m proposing the Deficient Dozen – the highway bridges most likely to see gantries if that compromise plan actually happens.
It’s the wrong way to go because it unfairly singles out people who happen to use those exact locations, rather than the fairer way of tolling every mile by a smaller amount. But if we have no other option – and we may not – this is what it would look like.
That $210 million is a far shot short of the $900 million the state would raise under Lamont’s plan, tolling all four major highways from fencepost to fencepost. But jacking up the bridge tolls beyond 50 cents – say, $1 a trip – would be grossly unfair to people who happen to live near rundown highway bridges.
Let’s say one of the bridges was the Yankee Doodle Bridge, which carries Interstate 95 over the Norwalk River, and let’s say the charge was $1 each way. Plenty of people who live around there use that bridge more than once a day. They could end up paying $700 a year, maybe $900 a year or even more.
People who live and work near Bridgeport, where – strangely – there are no deficient bridges along I-95 – would get a free ride, literally, while the Norwalkers and Greenwichers and New Haveners might pay hundreds of dollars a year.
Here’s another big problem with bridge tolling. The targeted highway bridges tend to be in or immediately around the state’s biggest cities, again, with the exception of Bridgeport. If the purpose of tolls is to reduce traffic congestion in addition to raising money for needed repairs, bridge tolls could backfire in a very nasty way, clogging up local city streets at exactly the time when Connecticut’s economic development strategy calls for making cities more livable and enticing.
You can say all tolls would do that, but at 5 cents a mile for the whole state, not many people will get off the highway in a city to avoid paying a few cents. At $1 per round trip, only in selected points, motorists will definitely make the detour and that would hurt all of us.
Lowering the fare to 25 cents each way would not raise enough money to make a dent in the problem.
Then there’s a matter of how the money is used. Under federal rules, bridge tolls must be only at deficient bridges, and only to raise money to fix that very bridge. Here’s the catch: After the bridge is repaired, we can keep the toll in place forever.
I grew up four miles from the George Washington Bridge, which now costs, what, $175 to cross into Manhattan? Obviously that rule cuts both ways.
Now let’s look at the list. The top deficient bridge, according to a report by the American Road and Transportation Builders Association, is the poetically named Yankee Doodle. It carries 145,000 vehicles a day, so a no-brainer there.
Then we come to the one I mentioned in West Haven – let’s give New Haven a breather – which carries 136,400 vehicles. New Haven has a likely bridge toll, don’t worry, not far away on I-91, just a couple of miles north of downtown.
Other I-95 bridges are in Greenwich, over the Byram River; Branford at exit 55; and New London, northbound only, at the famous Gold Star Bridge, built in 1943 before I-95 even opened.
Heading north from Bridgeport, we’ve got one in Shelton along Route 8, over the Housatonic River; and of course, the Waterbury mixmaster of I-84 and Route 8. That counts as a deficient bridge; two, actually. And we’d never raise enough money in tolls to pay for that one.
In Hartford, the notorious I-84 viaduct comprises seven separate, deficient bridges. We’d toll one of them, take our pick, they’re all lined up, all past their functional design life.
In total, the Deficient Dozen carry 420 million vehicles a year, yielding the $210 million at 50 cents a trip. That 420 makes for a solid symbol, as anyone who imagined the political gridlock we’re seeing in 2019 had to either be either brilliant or smoking pot.
You get the picture. The idea is to make bridge tolling as fair and efficient as possible. As the Deficient Dozen shows, bridge tolling is neither fair nor efficient.
Maybe the best path is to increase the number of bridges to 24 or 30, but the returns start to diminish because traffic flows are smaller and we might as well toll highways if we tolled two dozen bridges.
There is only one answer that works: Linear tolling along two or more highways, border to border. Anything short of that — including the dumbest idea, borrowing and paying Wall Street while handing a free pass to out-of-state motorists — is throwing away money at a time when we have roads, bridges and an economy to rebuild.