It takes a certain kind of genius to come up with the most unpopular idea in all of politics. A few years ago, Virginia's then-Gov. Tim Kaine, a Democrat, developed a scheme to lease part of Interstate 95 to an Australian company so it could impose a tax on the commonwealth's drivers for the next 75 years. Gov. Robert F. McDonnell, a Republican, is prepared to give final approval to this misguided high-occupancy toll (HOT) lane proposal. Before he does so, he ought to talk to his Georgia counterpart.
A nearly identical project was implemented two months ago on Interstate 85 in the Peach State, and it proved a disaster. Just 4 percent of the public told InsiderAdvantage pollsters they thought the lanes were effective. The support was below the survey's 5 percent margin of error - something that never happens. "I poll all over the country, and I have never seen an issue that people hated as much as this," InsiderAdvantage CEO Matt Towery told The Washington Times. "The people who make money off of it are real happy about it, but the rest of the people, they hate it."
Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal, a Republican, also inherited the deal from his predecessor. He has taken steps to rescue the I-85 project, including lowering the amount of the toll and asking the feds to restructure the lanes. (The request was denied.) Nonetheless, what once might have seemed to him a smart way to improve the traffic situation became a major political headache.
Such gimmicks can hold a superficial appeal as touted by academics and transportation bureaucrats. They promise tolling will "manage" traffic using "free-market" principles, but the advocates often have other motivations. In 2008, Illinois' then-Gov. Rod R. Blagojevich, a Democrat, introduced his own "Green Lanes" tolling project, which could have meant $5 billion for engineering companies. If they didn't "step up" with $500,000 in campaign donations, however, they wouldn't land the deal, according to federal wiretaps of Blagojevich's colorful conversations.
That's not to say this particular corruption extends beyond the Prairie State, where the state penitentiary is a common retirement destination for its chief executives. After sentencing, Blagojevich likely will be the fourth ex-governor to wind up behind bars. But even in deals without corruption, the engineering firms make off like thieves, and consumers are the worse for it.
Take the 91 Express Lanes project in Orange County, Calif., often held up as a model of private firms raising money to complete construction projects local governments say they can't afford. In 1995, a French company raised $135 million to build toll lanes, but the deal came with strings. No improvement could be made to nearby untolled freeway capacity for 30 years so that the tolling company's profit would be guaranteed. It took less than eight years for congestion in the area to grow so intolerable that taxpayers coughed up a $207 million ransom to get out of the contract. It would have been far cheaper and more efficient had taxpayers built free lanes for themselves from the start.
It's not too late for Mr. McDonnell to avoid repeating these mistakes by canceling this foolhardy endeavor.
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