Monday, April 04, 2005

Congress Removes Barrier to Tolls

Tolls on Connecticut Borders a Possibility

If you commute across the state line, this is distressing news:

Congress nudged the door ajar for "gateway tolls" on Connecticut's borders.

Tucked into the 1,075-page transportation bill that recently cleared the House of Representatives are provisions that remove, under some circumstances, federal financial roadblocks that have stopped states like Connecticut from imposing new highway tolls. (Urban)

Great. I have nightmares of a toll booth on the Enfield/Longmeadow border, now.
This is a terrible idea for the following reasons:

1. There is a lot of cross-border economic activity, where people will drive from out of state to shop at malls and other retail establishments near the border. Enfield is a great example of this. I routinely see license plates from Massachusetts and Vermont in the parking lots of Enfield stores. The Danbury Fair Mall is another example, and the Crystal Mall in Waterford is a third. Tolls on the highways leading to these places will make out of state customers think twice.

2. Congestion will get much, much worse because of toll plazas. The border crossings are often very busy as it is, with the exception of I-395 and I-84 into Massachusetts. Fairfield County will suffer especially from this.

3. Commuters will start taking side roads unsuited to heavy traffic to avoid paying entry/exit tolls. This means more road repair for the state and for border towns.

I hope our elected representatives had the decency to stand against something so clearly counter to the interests of the state:

All five Connecticut representatives opposed the original amendment. But Rep. Rob Simmons, R-2, swam against the tide and voted in favor of the amendment.

"Rob felt it would be wrong to allow these tolls not to go to new construction only," "Whether you are a trucker or motorist, you already pay a toll in the form of a gas tax," said Todd Mitchell, Simmons' chief of staff.

Simmons is the only member of the delegation on the House Transportation Committee. (Urban)


Source: Urban, Peter. "Bill could take toll on roads." Connecticut Post 4 April 2005.


stomv said...

State line tolls are tricky business. I live in Boston MA, and there are scores of commuters from NH (50+ miles away). They work in Massachusetts -- consuming our resources and polluting our air. But they aren't paying taxes in Massachusetts, and especially not gas taxes, since they always fill up in NH where the gas tax is cheaper.

In the "other direction", retailers in MA and the state gov't lose out when folks cross over to NH to shop, since NH has no sales tax.

So, these "Live Free or Die" are living cheap on the backs of Mass-holes like myself. Frankly, it isn't fair to Massachusetts taxpayers, as we're losing both coming and going.

Border tolls also help (artificially) reduce the length of commutes, since it makes it more expensive to live a state away. This is relevant for all cities around CT since the state is so small... NYC and White Plains, New Haven, Hartford, Providence, and Boston are all commutable to/from a large part of CT.

The gas tax cannot be considered a fair use tax if the state is too short to force drivers to fill up. When driving from Boston to NYC, I never get gas in CT... I fill up at home, and drive straight to my destination. CT is paying for the bulk of the roads I drive on, but gets none of my use payment.

The problem with toll-evaders is non-trivial. My only suggestion would be to make sure that the time it takes to go around the toll is so large that it isn't worth the $1 or so to anyone but high school kids. As for the amount of time it takes, an EZ-Pass or FastLane keeps that fairly low. Additionally, it's been shown by traffic engineers that a tollbooth that slows the rate of traffic to a steady x cars per minute actually helps reduce the commute time, since it spreads cars out more uniformly, effectively allowing the faster cars to get around clumps of slow drivers.

Ultimately, I think that tolls on CT borders would be slightly good for the majority of Nutmeg Staters, but pretty bad for a few (folks associated with the Danbury Fair Mall, etc). What would be really nice would be to see that money go to improve the rail lines in CT that lead to NYC, Boston, and Providence. After all, making the rail commute faster/smoother/more reliable helps reduce the amount of road traffic in the first place.

Conn-Tiki said...

stomv, the point of the gas tax is not to snare commuters or long-distance travellers - the point is to harvest money from the local person, in exchange for road maintenance on the roads they as citizens use. It's unrealistic to expect a tax to be able to capture money from every person passing through the state, especially if, as you said, the state is "too short." When you pay a gas tax in MA (rather than CT's), you're not suckering CT by then using its roads to go from Boston to NYC, you're paying for your own local roads (assuming there is a gas tax in MA, I don't know).

Besides, people working in Boston aren't just sucking "consuming your resources and polluting your air" - they're also generating hospitality income, supporting parking garages, and the fact of their employment is allowing businesses to thrive in Boston and generating tax revenue for the state (whether the state chooses to give businesses tax breaks and move the cost back onto your shoulders is the state's business, and not the fault of the NH commuter). The benefits of increased and sustained business activity and Boston's prominence as a business center far outweigh for the state and defecits created by the presence of a commuter class.

Or, you could just pass laws like New York's, and see how long it takes the commuters to stay the hell out of Massachusetts!

I agree that border tolls are a terrible idea - the interconnection between states is built on the power of interstate commerce, and now it's possible to make that harder? Did anyone think of the trucking companies, or van lines, or airport shuttle services? This can only end poorly.

stomv said...

stomv, the point of the gas tax is not to snare commuters or long-distance travellers - the point is to harvest money from the local person, in exchange for road maintenance on the roads they as citizens use.

I disagree. I believe that the point of the gas tax is to harvest money from all travelers, in exchange for road maintenance for all travelers of that road. It's a bad approximation for charging "by the mile", but far less cumbersome.

The fact is that some commuters drive on CT roads, but only pay gas tax in NY. Likewise, there are large numbers of NH residents who drive 100 miles a day, 5 days a week in MA -- but aren't paying to support those roads.

In general, I'm pro use tax for roads -- although I think that, in general, gas taxes work better. There is some disparity between states, but that can be overcome by raising the national gas tax and handing that back to the states, so that the effect of price-shopping across state lines is reduced. Incidently, a gas tax also encourages more MPGs, which helps to reduce the consumption of foreign oil.