Virginia Gov. Robert F. McDonnell last week made the pitch for a $4 billion investment in transportation. Given the gridlock on many of the commonwealth’s roads - particularly in the north - this goal has some appeal. Unfortunately, the specifics in the governor’s proposal will put future generations in debt without addressing the fundamental cause of congestion.
Mr. McDonnell laid out his plan at a transportation conference in Roanoake that wrapped up Friday. The event’s corporate sponsors comprised a who’s who of the toll-road industry, featuring firms like AECOM, Parsons Brinckerhoff, Transurban, Cintra and others. Each ponied up several thousand dollars to set the stage for transportation reform in the Old Dominion. This “reform” could put these same firms in a position of collecting a share of hundreds of millions extracted from motorists over the next 80 years. While that represents a good investment for rent seekers and politicians with short-term goals, it’s an expensive road for ordinary Virginians.
Mr. McDonnell proposes to invest $400 million in an “infrastructure bank” using budget surplus money and unspent funds at the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT). This bank, identical to an idea proposed by President Obama at the federal level, would use taxpayer dollars to subsidize sweetheart deals for the mostly foreign companies that build toll roads. The I-95/I-395 high-occupancy toll lanes (HOT lanes) were offered as a prime example of the kind of project this bank would support. It’s a boondoggle that illustrates precisely what’s wrong with the governor’s scheme.
Under former Democratic Gov. Tim Kaine, VDOT cut a preliminary deal with Transurban to lease the I-95 carpool lanes and grant Transurban the right to collect tolls from Virginia drivers for the next 80 years through transponder and camera systems that will track each driver’s every move. In return for this, the public gets absolutely nothing of value. Unlike the I-495 HOT Lanes project, there will be no new lanes constructed. Instead, three dangerously narrow lanes will be squeezed into the existing space for two, eliminating the shoulders. Based on the 495 agreement, the public can also expect contract provisions that ensure perpetual congestion on the remaining free lanes, guaranteeing Transurban’s profit margin.
Some conservative and libertarian groups have latched on to the toll-road concept as if it represented a “free market” solution to vexing transportation difficulties. It is, rather, an old-school, big-government swindle. If it were truly a libertarian idea, it would be the first one ever to spring from the mind of either Mr. Kaine or Mr. Obama. Mr. Kaine, the current Democratic National Committee chairman, probably likes tolls because they are nothing more than a tax hike - a $60 million hike in the case of I-95.
The last thing Virginia needs is a complicated and expensive policy to shake down drivers. General purpose highway lanes are the lifeblood of commerce; expanding them is the only true solution to the congestion problem.