Friday, January 04, 2008

"Your chance to join the salmon run may be in the planning stages even now."

Turning Asphalt Into Salmon Runs

How Politicians conspire with owners of private highways to make you pay—twice.

January 2008

Patrick Bedard
Car And Driver Magazine
Copyright 2008

The topic of privately owned toll roads just won’t go away. So lets take another look.

Why would somebody buy a toll road? I explored that question in my November column. The answer: because the owner gets the money that motorists cough up in tolls.

Today’s question: why would a motorist cough up to drive on a toll road? That’s easy: to get somewhere he can’t go on a free road, or, more likely, to get there with less agony.

Now, let’s go back to the owner’s side. In order to harvest more cough-ups, what would it take to pile more agony in the paths of motorists who choose to avoid a toll road? I can think of a few dirty tricks. Hire a couple of freelancers to fake breakdowns during rush hours. Other days, they could lose mattresses off the backs of pickups, something that would cause chaos in traffic but no damage to anything but the mental health of commuters.

This is risky though: How would you keep these low-wage mischief makers from talking?

What you need is an accomplice with authority to block the road. Now, if you could make a deal with the government…. nah, the government always acts for the good of the people.

Yeah, right. Drivers in Austin, Texas noticed a disturbing coincidence just as segment three of the privately owned State Highway 130 Toll road opened for business in 2007—the free roads they had been driving on suddenly clogged up. An extra traffic signal appeared in State Highway 71. And U.S, 183 Liberty Hill traffic was shunted to a frontage road with—ta da! —a new stoplight.

No problem with avoiding this impediment. Take 183A, which just happens to be another toll road.

You bet there were complaints. A spokesman for the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority—this is a tolling agency—answered by saying that the toll road is now “the primary corridor for traffic in that area.”

Just part of the plan, Ma’am.

It’s a lucrative plan, too. Citizens complain of toll rates as high as 1.50 a mile. It’s also a bare-faced bait-and-switch scheme by the planners. Just like light rail and other mass transit flimflams, this deal was floated with the promise that it would ease traffic on existing roads. Sure did! But only because they were intolerable.

Although the public is always kept in the dark until its too late, hobbling the free-road alternatives is SOP in these public-private toll roads. Read all about it in the contract’s noncompete clause.

When the last segment of the E-470 toll road opened in 2003 around Denver, Colorado, motorists in Commerce City were surprised to find that the speed limit in nearby Tower Road dropped from 55 mph to 40. Shiny new traffic signals also spouted up at 96the, 104th, and 112th avenues.

It took three years for irritated locals to ferret out the noncompete clause in the original contract between the state and the private toll agency. It demands the speed-limit reduction and the three new signals—and forbids all improvements to Tower Road before 2008 that would cause E-470 tolls to “be materially impaired or reduced.”

According to the U.S. Government Accountability Office, “non-compete clauses have been key components of agreements between states and consortia” that build toll roads. “financial markets require assurances as part of the bonding agreement that competing facilities within the same travel corridor will not be built,” said the Colorado Department of Transportation.

The most notorious noncompete was surely the one negotiated between the California Department of Transportation (CALTRANS) and the California Private Transportation Company for building what are now called the 91 Express Lanes from Anaheim east about 10 miles to the Riverside County line, it forbade improvements out to year 2030 to the Riverside Freeway, which runs alongside. No mass transit could be built in that corridor either.

When motorists found out the gotcha side of this deal, protest forced the state to buy back the venture in 2002 for 207.5 million. It now operates without the no-improvements clause.

Toll roads are about the money, and governments are eager participants. They increase their harvest by jacking up lease fees, which private investors are happy to pay in exchange for the guarantee of more salmon flowing through the gates.

Your chance to join the salmon run may be in the planning stages even now. A number of states are scheming to set up toll booths on interstate highways. Pennsylvania announced a $3 million contract with McCormick Taylor to set up a system to track and record every car on interstate 80 for billing purposes. This is the same McCormick Taylor that has been pumping campaign donations into the coffers of Governor Edward Rendell and then Speaker of the House John Perzel.

Watch out for Maine, too. Lawmakers in that state have put forward a plan for tolls on sections of interstates 95 and 295 that have always been free roads. Such a scheme will require federal approval, but the fix is already in—the last highway bill set up a pilot program allowing these existing interstate facilities to be converted to tolls. Already, states are crowding in line to grab those three openings. Texas has been spending gas tax money on a PR campaign, “Keep Texas Moving,” to drum up public support for toll roads.

Now that we know how the government easily conspires with owners of private toll roads to funnel us through the toll gates, here’s the question we salmon should be asking about the future of government-owned toll roads: Will bottlenecks be thrown up on the competing “free roads,” a quaint term for the highways we’ve already paid for once?

Read the Author's Companion Article: 'Turning Asphalt Into Gold'

© 2008 Car & Driver:

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