Thirty years ago today, on June 28, 1983, a section of the I-95 highway bridge 70 feet above the Mianus River in Greenwich collapsed, killing three people and seriously injuring three more. The tangle of mangled bodies and vehicles along the peaceful little river should be a constant reminder that Connecticut must keep its transportation infrastructure in good and safe repair — period.
In the years before the collapse, state leaders scrimped on maintenance to balance budgets. Gov. William O'Neill and legislative leaders, seeing the fatal folly, created a Special Transportation Fund to support — with gas taxes and other fees — what was initially a 10-year, $5.6 billion reconstruction plan. In the following decade, workers repaired or replaced nearly 1,500 bridges and repaved more than 4,000 miles of roads.
The special fund was a good idea, and has been followed by other states. The problem is that governors and legislative leaders have dipped into Connecticut's fund to balance their budgets, creating a situation not totally dissimilar to what was going on before the 1983 tragedy. Could it happen again?
The nonprofit advocacy group Transportation for America recently released a study of the nation's bridges that found that 9.7 percent of Connecticut's 4,196 bridges are structurally deficient. The deficient bridges are on average 65 years old, and carry 5.2 million people a day. An interstate highway bridge over the Skagit River near Mount Vernon, Wash., collapsed last month after it was struck by a tractor-trailer. The bridge was 58 years old. Also, Connecticut is considered the weak link in the Northeast Corridor rail line, because of deferred or inconsistent maintenance (which may have been responsible for last month's train crash in Fairfield).
In short, we need to maintain good infrastructure and we need to pay for it. In 2005 Gov. M. Jodi Rell signed a bill authorizing $1.3 billion in desperately needed improvements to the state's rail system, plus some highway upgrades. To pay for it, the General Assembly approved increases to the state's petroleum gross receipts tax, one of two gas taxes in the state. The final increase, to 8.1 percent from 7 percent, goes into effect Monday. It will increase the price of gas about 4 cents a gallon.
Republican legislators were out holding press conferences at gas stations earlier this week, hoping to make political hay by pinning the tax increase on the Democrats. They demanded that the increase be halted and started an online petition to that effect. Senate Minority Leader John P. McKinney said the increase would hurt middle-class families across the state.
So, we asked the senator, how would you pay for upkeep of the roads, rails and bridges? "Don't build the busway," he answered. That is disappointingly unresponsive. The Hartford-to-New Britain CTfastrak busway was mostly paid for with federal funds from a program that is for new public transit systems. Construction is well along. Plus, not building a particular project is not a long-term revenue plan.
The Republicans note that the gas tax in Connecticut is higher than that in surrounding states. Most of them have highway tolls, and Connecticut does not. Pick your poison.
Gas taxes are user fees, and user fees are a fair way to pay for transportation. But there are other kinds of user fees, such as taxes on miles driven. Plus, having separate gas taxes, each with its own accounting system, may well not be the most efficient and transparent way to get this job done.
Gov. Dannel P. Malloy last week announced an 18-month visioning process for the state's transportation system, called the Transform CT initiative, to improve the state's transportation network (see transformct.org to offer suggestions). As part of this, why not also look at ways to pay for the transportation system? Most people won't mind the 4 cent increase in the gas tax if they know they are getting a better system for it.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun