Commentary: The five biggest lies about highway tolls

Like it or not, get ready to pay tolls on our interstates and parkways. Transportation officials in Hartford say there’s just no other way to raise badly needed money for overdue infrastructure repairs. Tolls may not be popular, but neither are collapsing bridges.

In the last decade’s debate on highway tolling, here are the five biggest lies that opponents have used to stall the return of highway tolls:

1. The federal government won’t let us: Also known as “We’ll have to return millions in federal funding.” Not true, as U.S. Department of Transportation officials told us at a South Western [Connecticut] Regional Planning Agency-sponsored meeting in Westport years ago. The federal government regularly allows tolls to be used as traffic-mitigation and revenue-raising tools.

2. Our highways should be free: So should ice cream and doughnuts. Nothing is free, including the cost of repairing Interstate 95 and removing snow from the Merritt Parkway. Gasoline taxes come nowhere near to raising the needed revenue. Driving is a privilege, not a right. It should come with a cost.

3. Tolls will slow traffic: It’s not 1965 anymore. Tolling doesn’t require highway-wide barriers with booths and gates. Just look at the New Jersey Turnpike or Garden State Parkway, where barrier-free tolls using E-ZPass allow you to pay at 55 mph.

4. Toll booths cause accidents: See No. 3 above. This happened once, 30 years ago in Stratford, and was used as an excuse to end tolling in the state. If toll barriers are unsafe, why don’t fiery truck crashes happen daily at the hundreds of other toll barriers around the United States?

5. Highway tolls will divert traffic to local roads: This may be true, for about the first week. If people would rather drive for free on the Boston Post Road than pay 50 cents to save an hour by taking I-95, let ’em. Few drivers are that cheap, or stupid.

Billions in overdue road repairs

Trust me, I know about tolls and toll booths. I spent three summers in college working as a toll collector on the Tappan Zee Bridge in New York state. Back then the toll was only 50 cents to cross the mighty Hudson, but people still didn’t like paying it. (Today, the toll is $5.)

Connecticut pioneered toll roads as early as the late 18th century. But today our state is facing billions in overdue bridge and highway repairs. And federal aid for transportation may be cut by a third. So why are we in this current mess? Who’s to blame? Us!

We’re the ones that stupidly pushed Connecticut lawmakers to cut the gas tax 14 cents a gallon in 1997. And we’re the ones making it political suicide for legislators today to say they support tolls, even though they know tolls are inevitable.

Pick your poison: “Free” driving on pothole-filled highways with collapsing bridges … or pay a few bucks for a safe, speedy ride.

I vote for the tolls.

Jim Cameron has been a commuter out of Darien for 21 years. He is chairman of the Connecticut Metro-North/Shore Line East Rail Commuter Council, and a member of the Coastal Corridor Transportation Investment Area and the Darien RTM. Reach him at