- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 17, 2010

The Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) released its long-term vision for the Commonwealth on Wednesday. If fully implemented, the “2035 Virginia Surface Transportation Plan” would shake down taxpayers every time they get in their automobile by setting up toll booths on every interstates in Northern Virginia. The document also encourages the use of “congestion pricing” to extract greater sums from commuters as they travel to and from work.

The plan is well underway. State officials earlier this year sought federal permission to impose tolls on Interstate 95 starting at the North Carolina border. The Tar Heel State responded by proposing toll booths on its side of the dividing line. Even local governments are eager to get in on the action. Fairfax County is exploring the possibility of tolling surface streets to raise money for trolleys, buses and other items on the mass transit wish list.

In short, no matter where you drive inside or outside the Old Dominion, bureaucrats want you to either stop at a toll booth or have money automatically deducted from your bank account through an electronic tracking device. While some self-styled conservatives call this vision of the future “innovative,” it is anything but.

The Virginia legislature was authorizing the construction of toll roads long before it was even a part of the United States. From the 1770s up until the early part of the 20th century, the General Assembly chartered private companies (what would now be fashionably styled a “public-private partnership”) to “take possession of any portion of any other public road” to convert it into a “serviceable turnpike” and “charge tolls.” The Little River Turnpike in Annandale, for example, was one of this country’s oldest toll routes. The Little River Turnpike Company maintained and improved the road for more than a century. According to its annual report to the legislature in 1851, the company collected $10,437 in tolls and spent $4,049 in salaries for the company’s board of directors, dividends to its 125 shareholders and various expenses for toll collection.

There is a reason why the country dropped this antebellum method of road finance. The ability to tax transportation’s fuel at the source reduced a turnpike’s 39 percent overhead expense to almost nothing. Although many presume the gasoline tax is collected at the pump, it is actually collected in bulk from fuel distributors long before it reaches the consumer. As a result, Virginia’s 5.5 million drivers can’t escape paying a tax for each mile driven - with those choosing an efficient car rewarded with a lower tax. The full amount of this tax flows into government coffers.

Funding problems arise only when lawmakers get their hands on the money. That’s why there is now a push to return to ancient practices. Private companies have their eyes on the millions in overhead costs, and they have the ear of politicians who want to spend with abandon while claiming that they did not “raise taxes.” Whether it’s a tax raised or a toll imposed, the result is the same: the public ends up paying.

Those who dislike this renewed vision of bigger government fed by endless tolls should let VDOT know what they think. The agency is accepting comments on its plan via e-mail at: statewideplan@VDOT.Virginia.Gov through July 30.