Friday, April 06, 2007

Despite a building backlash, toll roads and highway taxation-by-the-mile schemes are grinding ahead in the face of public opposition.


Toll roads, user fees are stale ideas

April 5, 2007

Russell Sadler
Register Guard (Eurgene OR)
Copyright 2007

Despite a building backlash against toll roads and highway taxation-by-the-mile schemes, these gimmicks seem to have a life of their own, grinding ahead in the face of public opposition that will eventually kill them.

In Oregon, a "pilot project" is under way to tax vehicles by the mile. Public employee vehicles and some private drivers are installing GPS systems to track when and where they drive. The data are collected when the driver fills the tank at selected gasoline stations, and taxes are assessed.

We are assured that this data will remain secret and will be used for no purpose other than determining how much highway tax to pay. But after six years of the Bush administration, such promises are no longer credible. The only way to protect against the misuse of that kind of intrusive information is not to collect it at all.

But absent intervention by the Legislature, this juggernaut just keeps rolling along and picking up momentum until it inevitably becomes the way we are taxed to use the highways. It is, after all, the leading alternative to taxing gasoline by the gallon.

The future of toll roads is playing itself out in the sprawling suburbs of Virginia, including Loudoun County, one of the fastest growing 'burbs in the country.

When the Dulles Greenway was opened through farm and forest land in 1995, it was dubbed the "road to nowhere." Today, the 14-mile, privately financed toll road connecting the Dulles Toll Road with burgeoning Leesburg is the main artery in this sprawling county, featuring titanic traffic jams and a fight over raising the one-way toll from $2.70 to $4.80 over the next five years.

The original owners, Toll Road Investors Partnership II, has lost money since the road opened. Despite these chronic losses, The bought a controlling interest in TRIP II and wants to raise tolls so the company makes money. Australian-based Macquarie Infrastructure Group bought a controlling interest in TRIP II and wants to raise tolls so the company makes money. Macquarie also got caught lobbying against improvements to Route 7, a road that parallels the Dulles Greenway, to perpetuate congestion and create an "incentive" for drivers to use the toll road.

Macquarie insists it has a right to make money, like any other business. Local residents insist a "premium" high-cost, low-congestion toll road was not what they were promised when TRIP II first promised to build a privately-financed highway.

No one wants to admit this business model is failing already.

Macquarie has been dabbling around the fringes of Oregon's transportation policy for several years now. The company proposed to finance a toll road bypassing major communities in Yamhill County, but concluded the toll road could not make enough money unless a toll was also charged on Highway 99. Tolls on both routes would reduce drivers' incentive to avoid the private toll road.

As it became apparent to government officials and private developers that the public is no longer willing to build and maintain unlimited freeways and bypasses that simply generate more traffic, they have apparently decided to use tolls to ration the limited space on the highways.

This concept lacks the public support required to become widespread policy for two reasons.

  • First, the 99-year contracts some of these privately financed projects require lock communities into transportation systems that may become obsolete or cannot be changed by elected officials if public opinion changes in the future. Privately owned public infrastructure is undemocratic.

  • Secondly, rationing space on the highways by raising the price so only people with ready cash or credit can afford them is an affront to the egalitarian principles we all learn in kindergarten: First come, first served; wait your turn; no cuts in line.
The chronic traffic congestion in some parts of the state, the rising cost of highway maintenance and the increasing price of petroleum combine to demonstrate our post-World War II transportation and housing system is not sustainable.

Yet toll roads, rationing highway space by raising prices and other ideas we are talking about are aimed at sustaining the unsustainable for those with money, while the rest of us can just find ways to get along.

That is a prescription for a political backlash of the kind we saw last November.

We need a serious conversation about alternative transportation and housing models for the future. We are not hearing that conversation is Salem this session.

Political commentator Russell Sadler lives in Eugene.

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