EDITORIAL: Right for the wrong reason

HOT lane plan amounts to highway robbery

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Arlington County officials filed a lawsuit last year alleging that the state’s plan to turn Interstate 95/395 high-occupancy-vehicle (HOV) lanes into a toll road was, among other things, a racist enterprise. While it’s hard to endorse that logical leap, the legal wrangling has ground progress on the tolling scheme to a halt - and that’s the best possible outcome for limited-government conservatives.

Currently, a pair of reversible HOV lanes on I-95/395 are free for anyone to use except during peak morning and evening commuting hours, when they are reserved for car-poolers. Then-Gov. Tim Kaine, a Democrat, struck a preliminary deal to hand over this public right of way to an Australian corporation so the company could charge solo drivers for using the same road their tax dollars built. The tolling firm Transurban would earn 80 years’ worth of toll revenue for cramming one extra reversible lane into this existing space by taking away shoulders and narrowing the travel lanes.

That hint of new capacity - one lane in one direction - prompted the “not in my backyard” anti-growth crew in Arlington to throw up a red flag. According to their suit, an extra lane means more capacity and therefore more pollution. That’s why Arlington insists the project cannot legally go forward without a drawn-out environmental impact study.

Based on the history of tolling failures around the country, Arlington has nothing to worry about. Take the Dulles Greenway, which is operated by another Australian firm, Macquarie Atlas Roads. The Greenway’s daily traffic peaked in 2005 at 61,217 vehicles. Today, that figure is 47,807 - a 21 percent drop. Given their backward goals, Arlington officials should embrace tolling because charging hefty fees to use a road is great for killing growth.

In a presentation to investors, Macquarie’s leadership blamed the Greenway’s dismal performance on lane widening, signal optimization and other improvements made to Route 7 and Waxpool Road. “Both these competing roads have received considerable capacity upgrades since 2005, diverting significant traffic away from the Dulles Greenway,” a company prospectus explained. In other words, toll-road firms become a permanent anti-growth lobby with a financial incentive to kill any attempt to reduce gridlock in untolled portions of the road network.

The company’s other underperforming U.S. toll roads led to a $207 million loss in the past six months, giving Macquarie Atlas Roads a net worth of negative $282 million. Instead of prompting cutbacks, Macquarie’s parent entity reported that it collected $8.4 million in consulting and performance “fees” from its toll division. That, of course, gave upper management an excuse to pocket the famous bonuses that have earned the firm the “millionaire factory” moniker. Those bonuses were paid for, in part, by massive toll increases imposed on the Greenway’s remaining users.

Rep. Frank Wolf, the Virginia Republican who represents Greenway commuters, called those increases “highway robbery” in a letter to Virginia’s transportation secretary. We can look forward to similar thievery on every route in the commonwealth if Gov. Robert F. McDonnell succeeds in introducing more of these toll boondoggles into the Old Dominion.

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