This week finally provided an answer to one of the mysteries of the Lamont administration. The recently elected governor seems intent on bringing tolls back to Connecticut highways, but it hasn’t been clear on what, other than maintenance, he wants to spend the proposed new windfall.
Now, at least, we have the beginnings of an answer. Whether it will help the governor’s case remains to be seen, but the administration appears to believe it can solve one of the state’s major problems — traffic congestion — in part by building bigger highways. That’s a conclusion many experts would question, and something the state will need to do a better job explaining.
Much of what the Lamont team rolled out made sense. The state has a problem with repairing bridges, for instance, and with the governor a longtime Greenwich resident, memories of the Mianus River Bridge collapse in 1983 are especially present. No one wants to take a chance on seeing it happen again, and while the state did well taking on repairs of older bridges after the disaster, it has again fallen behind. Toll money would help reverse that trend.
Elsewhere, the governor’s team highlighted plans to improve connections in Middletown, where vehicles back up at two traffic signals on Route 9. Better connections in Danbury and improved exit and entrance ramps on I-95 also make sense, and could slice precious minutes off commutes.
The aspect of the plan that requires the most explanation, though, is the proposal to widen Interstate 95 northbound in Fairfield and Bridgeport. That’s a notorious bottleneck, and it makes sense in the abstract that more lanes would allow cars to flow through the area more easily, but studies have shown that’s not always how it works in practice.
In fact, when highways are widened, the roads often end up just as congested in as little as a few months or even a few weeks. Counterintuitive though it sounds, building roads to beat congestion is a highly questionable prospect.
The state says it wants to pair the new lane with variable tolling, which would charge people more to drive at certain busier hours. That’s more defensible, but residents, and legislators, need more information before they could make a decision. There is plenty of history on the effect of widening highways in the U.S., and the state needs to make a more complete case for its plans than it has so far provided.
What Connecticut needs is a way to get cars off the road, and that means funding improvements in mass transit. The Hartford Line’s early success has shown that people will ride the trains if they’re available, and not only when Manhattan is at the end of the line.
Instead of widening highways, the state needs alternative transit options. Widening the highway might work, to some degree, but its impact could be negligible, and it would without question come at great cost.
The money is better spent elsewhere.