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EDITORIAL: High-occupancy tax lanes

Beltway boondoggle illustrates infrastructure spending’s unaccountable future

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Toll lanes opened for the first time on the Capital Beltway Saturday, providing a disturbing glimpse of the future of infrastructure development. Virginia's Interstate 495 Express Lanes project adds desperately needed capacity to the congested route, which will ease commutes for drivers -- but only if they pay up.

The expense will be substantial, if what's happening with the Dulles Toll Road is any indication. The Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority (MWAA) decided last week to hike the tax on commuters 22 percent, beginning Jan. 1. That's on top of the increase last year, the year before that and the year before that. The current price of driving to work on the already pricey road is likely to double by 2015.

The tolls are rising fast because MWAA is raising funds for the Silver Line Metro extension to Dulles Airport, a $6 billion boondoggle. In 2006, it must have seemed too risky to generate funds for such a scheme through the ordinary political process. So then-Gov. Tim Kaine, now the Old Dominion's Democratic senator-elect, realized he could outsource the unpopular tax hikes to MWAA, an extra-constitutional governing body beyond the control of the Virginia General Assembly.

Mr. Kaine employed the same techniques when he put the Beltway toll lanes in motion, except in this case taxpayers are shaken down by Transurban, an Australian company, instead of airport bureaucrats. The Express Lanes project is often touted as a model of the public-private partnerships that are the supposed future of infrastructure funding. The "private" role is minimal, considering the enterprise has been bankrolled almost entirely by Uncle Sam and the commonwealth's financing. As Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood explained on his blog last week, "DOT's Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act (TIFIA) loan program provided $588 million for the new lanes. In addition, the project received $300 million in federal aid and $600 million in private activity bond authority."

For putting up a fraction of the deal's cost in cash, Transurban gets a 75-year toll collection monopoly that effectively prohibits improvements to any surrounding roads that might offer competition. It's a crony capitalist jackpot for Virginia's newest tax collector.

The goal is avoiding accountability, not providing relief to harried travelers. There's no need for toll booths, forcing drivers to carry electronic tracking devices or enriching foreigners when building traditional freeways with honest forms of borrowing. Instead, politicians have dreamed up these convoluted and expensive schemes simply to evade any up-or-down vote that might allow the public an opportunity to weigh in.

There was no vote in the General Assembly to transfer the Dulles Toll Road to MWAA. There was no debate over the wisdom of spending public funds to convert public land into a toll road for the financial benefit of foreigners. If Gov. Bob McDonnell succeeds in his latest plan to convert Interstate 95 into a toll road, there will be nobody to hold responsible because he won't be in office by the time the first quarter is tossed into a basket.

Virginians need to regain control of their roads and their transportation future.

The Washington Times

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