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EDITORIAL: Burnout in the HOT lane
Risky toll scheme comes with a history of financial failure
The Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) is eager to hand a significant chunk of Interstate 95/395 over to an Australian company for the next 80 years. That firm, Transurban, would charge solo drivers a fee for using the same lanes that currently may be used without charge during off-peak hours. Despite the lavish promises and hype, high-occupancy-toll (HOT) lane schemes have fizzled more often than they have succeeded.
The first public-private partnership to create HOT lanes sprung up 15 years ago on the congested 91 freeway in Orange County, Calif. Private investors raised the $135 million cost to lay concrete for a pair of new lanes. Those willing to pay a toll could use them to avoid backups in the free lanes. It sounded good until it became clear that those backups were intentional. A non-compete clause buried deep within the contract ensured perpetual congestion in the free lanes and, therefore, demand for the pay lanes. In 2003, county officials cried uncle and paid a $208 million ransom - a 54 percent premium on the actual cost of construction - to send the French toll collector into retreat. That charge was in addition to the $25 million a year drivers already were paying in annual tolls.
Now the county government operates the lanes, soaking drivers for $43 million a year to cover the $25 million in annual operating expenses, about a quarter of which is devoted to the electronic toll collection machines. It took eight years for the 91 project to fail, but a few miles south, San Diego’s Australian-owned South Bay Expressway went bankrupt after just a year-and-a-half.
Not that things are any better when state bureaucrats own the program from the start. Washington state set up HOT lanes on the outskirts of Seattle in 2008. According to the latest financial statements, motorists paid $114,644 in tolls and fees in the first quarter of fiscal 2010, but TransCore, the private contractor that runs the tolling equipment, pocketed$126,476. When all expenses are taken into account, the lanes lost $208,471 for the quarter. It doesn’t take a math genius to realize that those lanes would be cheaper if they were open and free to the public that paid for them in the first place.
Given this unimpressive track record, it’s no surprise that VDOT and former Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine’s administration rammed through the Capital Beltway HOT lanes deal without offering the chance for true public input or scrutiny. Before plunging recklessly into a second scheme, Gov. Robert F. McDonnell should lift the veil of secrecy from the I-95 HOT lane financial projections and contract details. Old Dominion residents deserve to know more about the foreign company to whom they’ll be paying alimony for the next 80 years.
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