Commentary: Higher gas tax doesn't help transportation system
This week marks the 30th anniversary of the Mianus River Bridge collapse, which killed three people. That accident on I-95 in Greenwich was attributed to years of neglected inspections and maintenance, the inevitable result of penny-pinching in Hartford.
Will the recent Metro-North crash (which injured 76 passengers), also be tied to long-postponed repairs?
Recently, the Connecticut Department of Transportation (DOT) commissioner testified before U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal that Connecticut has spent $3.2 billion in the last decade on the New Haven rail line, while Amtrak spent just $64 million. And all that spending still couldn’t prevent the May 17 derailment.
But, Commissioner James Redeker also said there’s another $4.5 billion needed to bring the line into a “state of good repair,” in the short term. That includes work on the catenary and replacement of four movable bridges, some of them 100-plus years old.
Layer on top of this $130 million to meet the federal mandate for PTC (Positive Train Control), and you can see the problem.
Increased gas tax begins July 1
Where’s the money to come from?
Well, it will come from you and me. On July 1, we will all start paying an additional 4 cents per gallon for gasoline, tax money that will go into the Special Transportation Fund (STF), supposedly to be spent on rails and roads.
But remember that it was Gov. Dannel P. Malloy who (again) balanced this year’s state budget by raiding $110 million from that STF, something that, as a candidate, he swore he would never do. Voters will decide if that makes Malloy a hypocrite ... or just a pragmatist.
Either way, future governors won’t be able to do it again, as the legislature has voted to put the STF into an untouchable “lock box” starting in 2015, after the next election.
Stealing from the transportation fund
Over the past decade, various lawmakers and governors have stolen a billion dollars from the STF. So not only are we about $4.5 billion short on needed funds for rail repairs, but the STF has been treated like a petty cash box and drained at will.
How sad it is when we have to balance our state’s budget by taking money targeted for keeping our rails and highways safe — not to mention starting a statewide keno game, basically a “tax” on those ignorant enough to play it (with odds of about nine million-to-one of winning the jackpot).
Kudos to Sen. Blumenthal for pushing safety as a top priority. Maybe he can also get Amtrak to start paying its fair share for running trains over our (state-owned and maintained) tracks.
Highway bridges need help, too
But it’s not just our rails that are in bad shape. This week the group Transportation for America released its annual report on the deterioration of U.S. highway bridges: one in nine of those bridges is structurally deficient and in need of repair or replacement. In Connecticut, that number has grown, not declined, since last year.
Yet, our DOT is still moving forward with a half-billion dollar rebuild of the structurally sound Waterbury “mix-master,” where Route 8 crosses Interstate 84. Why?
So, next time you’re filling your tank with the priciest gasoline in the Northeast, pick-up a keno ticket. You might have a better chance of winning there than ever seeing your taxes spent on improving transportation safety.
Jim Cameron has been a Darien resident for 22 years. He is chairman of the CT Metro-North/Shore Line East Rail Commuter Council, and a member of the Coastal Corridor Transportation Investment Area and the Darien RTM. The opinions expressed in this column are only his own. You may reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or trainweb.org/ct.