"In 50 short years, we've gone from a Dwight Eisenhower approach to funding freeways to a Tony Soprano approach. Call me nostalgic, but I like Ike."
August 16, 2007
Newark Star Ledger (New Jersey)
Last weekend I was vacation ing in the Poconos and I got talking to some of the locals. They were pretty steamed. It seems that Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell is pushing a scheme to im pose tolls on the Pennsylvania section of Interstate 80.
I'm pretty steamed, too. If Pennsylvanians want to charge tolls on the roads they built with their own money, such as the Pennsylvania Turnpike, that's none of my business.
But I-80 was built with my tax dollars under a program begun by the esteemed Republican president Dwight Eisenhower. Now this Democrat wants to use the road as a cash cow. He isn't even pretending, as politicians usually do, that the purpose of the tolls is to fix up the road. Instead "Fast Eddie," as Pennsylvanians call their governor, wants to make a quick buck off the road to fund mass transit in Philly and Pittsburgh.
You can imagine how well that's going over in rural northern Pennsylvania. Several members of Congress are fighting the plan in the House. Rep. Phil English, a Republican, succeeded in getting a rider inserted in an appropriations bill that would ban the tolls. But the bill needs to win Senate approval and be signed by President Bush.
Here's where the plot thickens. You would expect Bush as a Republican to oppose the efforts of Rendell and our own Democratic governor, Jon Corzine, to balance their budgets through that form of fiscal trickery we have come to know as "asset monetization." Like Rendell, Corzine also flirted with the idea of putting tolls on our sec tions of I-80 and I-78, but Jersey drivers made it plain to Corzine that this was political suicide. So Corzine has to content himself for now with making a buck off our existing toll roads.
But you can't blame Democrats for this fiasco. In fact, it was the prior President Bush who pushed the change in federal law that permits imposing tolls on federally funded freeways. And the current President Bush's transportation secretary, Mary Peters, has been turning up in Pennsylvania to offer support for putting tolls on I-80.
And guess where else Peters has been hanging out? You got it: Texas. There she's been buddying up to Gov. Rick Perry, a Republican and a Bush protégé. Peters and Perry have been plotting with a Spanish firm by the name of Cintra to build a massive 4,000-mile network of toll roads called the Trans-Texas Corridor. One problem: Texas already has an excellent network of freeways. So how do the pols plan to get Texans to use the toll roads instead?
Texas Transportation Secretary Ric Williamson has provided the answer. In a 2004 Houston Chronicle article, he was quoted as telling Texans "in your lifetime most exist ing roads will have tolls." The I-80 effort in Pennsylvania, in other words, looks like just the first step in a national effort to convert the interstate system into a network of toll roads. Private corporations such as Cintra are ready to hand over billions of dollars up front against future toll collections.
The benefits for politicians are immense.
It's a disaster for drivers, however.
If you think those Pennsylvanians are peeved, give Dave Stall a call. He and his wife have founded a citizens' group to fight the Texas toll plans. When I got him on the phone, Stall told me that Texas plans to charge 15 cents a mile on toll roads. If you're driving a car that gets 27 miles per gallon, that's equivalent to approximately a $4-a-gallon gas tax.
"It's really interesting that there is a complete aversion to any increase in the gasoline tax by the governor, yet there is this rush to privatize and toll," he said.
Indeed it is. And it's really interesting that on the national level Bush claims to be firmly opposed to a mere 5-cent-a-gallon increase in the federal gas tax while his transportation secretary supports tolls. Let's say I want to drive from the Delaware Water Gap to the Ohio state line on I-80. That 5-cent gas-tax increase would cost me perhaps 50 cents. The projected toll, meanwhile, would be about $20.
That $19.50 difference explains why politicians of both parties are so hot on tolls. Every cent of a gas tax increase would go to transportation. But tolls provide a vast pool of money for lobbyists, lawyers, patronage jobs -- you name it.
By the way, if you're confused by the term "asset monetization," Stall has a definition that any Jersey driver will understand.
"It's Tony Soprano," Stall said. "He gives you an envelope on top of the table, and then he hands you another envelope under the table."
In 50 short years, we've gone from a Dwight Eisenhower approach to funding freeways to a Tony Soprano approach. Call me nostalgic, but I like Ike.
Paul Mulshine may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. To comment on this column, go to NJVoi ces.com.
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