- The Washington Times - Friday, April 9, 2010

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

As is the case in major metropolitan areas throughout the country, congestion plagues Northern Virginia. The constant traffic snarls impede business, pollute the environment and generally make living in the region an unpleasant experience.

This doesn’t mean - as the Fairfax County Chamber of Commerce suggests - that toll roads are in any way a solution to the problem. To the contrary, a toll road’s financial survival depends upon perpetual congestion in the road network as a whole.

The explanation is straightforward. Given alternative routes without traffic, no rational consumer would fork over his hard-earned cash to take a tolled highway. Purportedly “innovative” public-private partnerships ensure that this situation never exists by securing non-compete contract clauses that either directly prevent or indirectly discourage improvements to nearby free roads. Happy commuters are not paying customers.

Take the Capital Beltway high-occupancy toll (HOT) lane deal between the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) and the tolling firm Transurban. Under section 9.02 of the contract, improvements made to the Beltway’s general-purpose lanes without Transurban’s permission trigger “compensation events.” This scheme forces Virginia taxpayers to pay ransom to the Australian firm before the free lanes can be widened within the next 80 years. The payment would be based on an estimate of the financial loss to the tolled lane from improvements to the free lanes.

This is the equivalent of Ford customers being forced to make payments to Toyota if improvements to the American product attracted customers away from the Japanese marque. Nobody would consider such an arrangement to be in any way free-market. Nor is market competition involved when a private foreign corporation profits on the backs of taxpayers after taking federal and state grants, loans and guarantees subsidizing 82 percent of the project’s total cost.

That sum, including tolls paid over the lifetime of the scheme, amounts to billions more than it would have cost the public to construct the same lanes as part of a traditional freeway. The construction of additional free-lane capacity is the only permanent solution to gridlock.

Local bureaucrats steadfastly have opposed adding new capacity. Instead, officials kowtow to special interests infatuated with the concept of spending other people’s money - in this case through motorist user fees. No better example of this can be found than the $5.3 billion that drivers will pay to subsidize the Dulles Metrorail extension, not counting the billions more in cost overruns, financing charges and operational subsidies over the project’s lifetime.

Fortunately, Northern Virginians can look forward to a small bit of relief on Interstate 66 inside the Beltway. This summer, VDOT will begin a modest project expanding the overloaded highway’s capacity, starting with the stretch between Fairfax Drive and Sycamore Street. Commuters should thank Rep. Frank R. Wolf, Virginia Republican, for his persistence in driving this project over the objections of the not-in-my-backyard crowd.

This road carries 110,000 vehicles to and from work every day, and the first phase of Mr. Wolf’s project will cost just $19 million. By comparison, the Federal Transit Administration estimates that the Dulles rail project will benefit about 35,000 persons on weekdays - meaning the cost for each regular user will be $150,000.

Unless this region puts a stop to these wasteful transit boondoggles and tolling schemes, the congestion will only get worse.

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