The roads and bridges that most of us use each day are not free. They have to be repaired and maintained, and this costs a lot of money.
Nearly three decades ago, following the collapse of the Mianus River bridge on I-95 in Greenwich, state officials created the Special Transportation Fund, primarily supported by a gas tax, to pay for transportation infrastructure. It was an excellent plan, but for one subsequent problem — legislators can't keep their hands off it.
Many times over the years — and again this year — state leaders dipped into the transportation fund to help balance the general budget. This year lawmakers are taking $76 million out of the fund for non-transportation purposes as part of the budget deal passed this week.
Gov. Dannel P. Malloy argues that he's shifted some money back to the transportation fund in recent years and invested heavily in individual transportation projects such as New Haven-Hartford-Springfield commuter rail. Nevertheless, filching dollars from the transportation fund is a bad idea, and must stop. Indeed, some lawmakers introduced a bill this year that would have outlawed the practice, but the bill failed.
The special transportation fund was created to pay for the upkeep of the state's transportation infrastructure (Bradley International Airport has a separate funding structure) so that the state wouldn't have another collapse. Well, according to a recent study by the nonprofit Tri-State Transportation Campaign, about a third of the state's highway bridges are classified as deficient, and nearly three-quarters of the state's roads are not in good condition.
The state Department of Transportation has at least $3 billion worth of projects backed up because it doesn't have the money to build them.
Every time the fund is raided, there's less money available for infrastructure. With federal transportation money flat and uncertain after 2014, this is not the time to be doing roads and bridges on the cheap. Three people died in the Mianus River collapse.
Also, to tell the public that the gas tax is going to the transportation fund and then send it somewhere else is neither honest nor a good way to do business. If federal funds dry up and the state needs to reinstate tolls, lawmakers will have a tough time selling the idea if the public thinks the funds are going for some other use.
A somewhat similar situation obtains with the idea of eliminating the local property tax on automobiles over seven years, passed as part of a package of otherwise good bills promoting regionalism. The problem with the tax is not that it exists, but that it is inequitable.
A tax on the same car can be much higher in some municipalities — usually the large cities — than in others. It is patently unfair for a resident of, say, New Canaan to pay less in car taxes than a resident of Hartford on the same car. The key is to equalize the burden, but not eliminate the tax. The towns need the money.
One of a town's many obligations is maintenance of town roads. A car taxes raises money from the users.
The Connecticut Conference of Municipalities came out Tuesday against the elimination of the car tax, unless there is "concrete assurance" of another "reliable, supplemental funding source." Without a way to replace the revenue, towns will be out some $700 million, said CCM spokesman Kevin Maloney.
Legislators who support the gradual elimination of the property tax call it property tax reform. But if the towns have to shift more of the burden to real estate property taxes, no reform will have been achieved.
Finally, if the state is trying to promote the use of transit, eliminating the car tax sends a discordant message.