Sunday, June 8, 2008

For Whom the Road Tolls (E-Z Pass Uber Alles?)

John Donne, the long-distance drugstore truck driving man who handles the big rigs from Omaha to Oahu (keep the windows rolled up and the wipers on full), was telling me the other day about how the price of fuel and other ancillary costs was causing him to rethink his career options.

One of the concerns he has, and it's shared by more and more opinion leaders across the Nutmeg State, is the reintroduction of tolls on the major highways that cross the state. A lot of folks see a lot of dollar signs and know there's a lot of good that can be done with that money, especially if it started out in someone else's pocket.

Admittedly, the cold light of sobriety in the morning can be a bit scary. Newspapers in the last couple of days had started to pick up on some of the subtle nuances that would have taken effect when the next CT fiscal year begins Tuesday, 1 July had the Governor and the Legislature not agreed to cancel an increase on the CT taxes for gross receipts (and people say bi-partisan cooperation is dead.) Diesel fuel taxes however will still go up as planned. All fuel, as you have noticed, has gone up in recent weeks quite nicely without a jet-boost from the state, but, in comparison to almost everywhere else on the planet, it's still (relatively) cheap.

Here's why I'm disquieted about toll roads, despite having grown up in New Jersey where we have the 'Pike, the NJ Turnpike (and, before you ask, Exit 9) and my favorite private highway, the Garden State Parkway (now partnered with the 'Pike-sell my clothes, I'm going to heaven) both of which collected tolls for a million or so years, to pay for their own construction and now continue to collect tolls to pay for their maintenance: what are once vices become habits in the blink of an eye.

My family and I arrived here just as Connecticut was starting on the State Income Tax back in 1991, explained, as was its Federal counterpart almost a century earlier (unless you count the Revenue Act of 1861 to pay for the Civil War) as a temporary solution to an extraordinary situation---there's no other way . Between you and me, it looked in 1991 like the extraordinary situation was the state had no money and too many bills. We called a tourniquet a band aid and decided an amputated leg was a scratch and hobbled on down the road. And we haven't stopped since.

What happened here, and it's happened everywhere, to include our homes and households, as our incomes have increased arithmetically, our appetites have exploded exponentially. I'm making I have no idea how much more money than my dad, but I'm worth it (I don't even get paid for my modesty! Hard to believe, isn't it?) but I'm in a bigger and deeper hole than he ever was. Seems no matter how much I bring in, it goes out faster. Seems to be the case across the nation and, most, definitely, here in the Land of Steady Habits where you'd think we'd frown on profligacy.

And frown we do, but spend we must and that we do hand over fist. You know how when you exercise, the next day you ache from muscles you didn't know you had? That's how it is with money. It's amazing how many things migrate from the 'nice to do' column right to the top of the 'must do' column when the dollars start rolling in.

And in Connecticut, let's not forget a decade and a half ago, there were no gaming compacts, now all handled by the Division of Special Revenue (a champion of understated department names if there ever were such a thing!) pumping unimagined amounts of money into state coffers. It seems there are indeed money trees in New London County, Connecticut. And you can take a state highway or an interstate to drive on by and give 'em a shake.

So the problem is what it has always been--we want what we want and should you figure out a way to give us the moon we'll still cry for the stars. If only we weren't so much like Milo with the propensity to be Alec Bings choosing between the Doldrums and Lost in the Flood! Then the only tolls we'd be collecting would be from The Phantom Tollbooth.
-bill kenny

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