- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Congress turns its attention this week to the five-year, $260 billion reauthorization of the Department of Transportation. Most of the attention has fallen on the House version of the legislation, which also would green-light the Keystone XL pipeline project and open up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Democrats are steamed that Republicans would try to revive these job-creating deals.

As that controversy rages, an equally important debate on the future of America’s roads is slipping by under the radar. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, Texas Republican, intends to offer an amendment to the Senate’s version of the transportation bill to prohibit the imposition of tolls on existing interstate freeway lanes. Mrs. Hutchison’s office confirmed that her proposal would not block Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell’s plan to erect toll booths on Interstate 95 between the North Carolina border and Fredericksburg. That’s unfortunate.

The Obama administration gave preliminary approval to Mr. McDonnell’s misguided scheme in September, and the response has been predictable. North Carolina saw its neighbor shaking down drivers and decided it should impose tolls as well. The domino effect continues to South Carolina, where the top transportation bureaucrat said, “We are interested in tolling and listen to what other states are doing.” The desire is there, but the will is not. Politicians in the Palmetto State realize the public isn’t ready to swallow tolls quite yet, so they’re shelving plans - for now.

There’s a reason tolls aren’t popular. Judging from the toll rates on the way to New York, vacationers looking to escape the Beltway in favor of a day of relaxation on Myrtle Beach could wind up paying $30 for the privilege. Though it will be said this money will pay for “improvements” to the Interstate 95 corridor, motorists already pay billions in the form of big taxes on gasoline, tires, licensing, registration and parking, which is plenty to keep the roads in top shape. The funding only dries up when politicians dip into highway accounts so they can spread the cash around on money-losing mass-transit buses, trolleys and trains.

Tolling adds the expense of crony capitalism to the equation. Out of that $30 toll, at least $6.60 would go to pay for an absurdly inefficient toll-collection apparatus. Running a toll road requires customer-service agents, lawyers, marketing departments, enforcement teams and expensive electronic transponder and plate-reading systems. Politicians don’t mind this inefficiency because it affords them the luxury of outsourcing future toll hikes to a private company, usually based in a foreign country.

Toll roads can only exist when there’s no accountability. That’s why there has never been a vote in the Virginia General Assembly authorizing the tolling of Interstate 95. Instead, Mr. McDonnell and his Democratic predecessor, Tim Kaine, have ripped the Old Dominion’s roadways out from under the people who paid for them. The federal government has been subsidizing these tolling schemes with cut-rate loans and grant programs. It’s time for Congress to pull the plug on this double taxation of America’s highways.

The Washington Times