The American Society of Civil Engineers 2013 Report Card on the Nation’s Infrastructure says that Connecticut’s roads are tied with Illinois as the worst in the nation. An incredible 73% of roads are in poor or mediocre condition in the two states, the highest percentage in the nation. Wisconsin’s 71% is third.
The report says that lousy roads cost motorists $847 million a year in extra vehicle repairs and operating costs, or $294 per motorist. Combined with last year’s INRIX National Traffic Scorecard data that showed the state has the fifth-most traffic bottlenecks in the nation on a per capita basis, the road is both rough and hard for Connecticut drivers.
The studies stand in stark contrast with the surreal world that is the Connecticut state government. The recently adopted state budget that raids $91 million from the special transportation fund while simultaneously implementing the largest fuel tax hike in history. The funds that remain in the transportation fund may not even be enough to sustain current services, to say nothing of the at least $10 billion on the Department of Transportation’s Unfundables list.
Fixing the transportation system means fixing the system that funds it. The improving fuel efficiency of vehicles, the rise of cars not powered by gasoline at all, and inflation erode the effectiveness of the gas tax as a user fee. A better solution is to implement cashless tolling with a congestion pricing model to raise the necessary revenue from users. One recent study suggested that the city of Chicago could raise the revenue necessary to pay for $52 billion in infrastructure upgrades by adopting this model. The other obvious fix, of course, is to spend transportation money on transportation projects.
As a small geographic space located directly between two of the nation’s biggest metropolitan areas, one might think that a modern transportation system would be a top priority. But with one in five Connecticut residents on Medicaid, unfunded pension liabilities that under the most optimistic of outlooks are underfunded by billions of dollars, and the worst performing economy in the nation, it isn’t hard to figure out how infrastructure investments were crowded out of the budget.
Last year, an MSNBC advertisement put Rachel Maddow in front of the Hoover Dam wondering if “America can still think this big.” The implication was that opposition to government spending is opposition to iconic American accomplishments like the Hoover Dam. Put another way, if you hate the way the US government spends money, you must hate America.
The truth is there was a time when spending on big things like the Hoover Dam weren’t crowded out by entitlements, unfunded liabilities, and debt, but that time isn’t now. The cost of government increased because the same folks cheerleading for more spending on the next Hoover Dam fight harder and more loudly for more spending on health care, retirement planning, and a wide variety of other priorities.
The promise of reform must be to deliver the same level of service with comparable quality at a lower cost. Rhode Island set their pension system on the path to stability with public employee pension reform in 2011. Florida, Indiana, and many other states are experimenting with Medicaid reforms that reduce costs while improving customer satisfaction. North Carolina, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Louisiana are all considering major changes to their tax systems to create new opportunities for growth. But on these measures, Connecticut lags behind. This, as much as any one report card, should be a wake up call.