- - Friday, March 21, 2014

Budget season is here, and an endless stream of lobbyists are making their annual pilgrimage to Capitol Hill to beg for alms. It’s something the transportation industry does well, considering that the promise of eliminating potholes pleases everybody but mechanics and tire salesmen. Some of the lobbyists, even some conservatives with more appetite than conviction, are pushing toll roads and mileage-tax schemes in the guise of reducing traffic congestion. It’s a trap.

Toll roads are all the rage with those who expect to get rich with deals called “innovative” public-private partnerships. The idea of tossing a coin into a basket for the privilege of traveling on a road is a stale and frayed idea that only seems fresh.

It’s a crony idea that gives off more than a whiff of corruption. Consider what’s happening in Virginia. As Gov. Bob McDonnell was leaving office, his suitcase stuffed with goodies collected from his “admirers,” he auctioned as many of the state’s roads as he could find to foreigners willing to buy them. Now taxpayers are even paying for the advertisements needed to make those foreign investors rich.

Tolling began last month on the Elizabeth River Tunnel, which connects the cities of Norfolk and Portsmouth. The project is run by a division of Australia’s Macquarie Bank and the Swedish construction firm Skanska, but as a Hampton Roads television station recently discovered, the Virginia Department of Transportation is spending $358,954 for ads to encourage drivers to use E-ZPass to pay tolls on this “private” project.

The extra advertising is needed because the state’s “private” toll roads have been a flop. Toll lanes were added to a 13-mile stretch of the Capital Beltway last year, but Virginians haven’t found it worth paying the variable toll of up to $10 to avoid traffic congestion. The scheme lost $50 million last year, spooking investors concerned about the project’s long-term solvency.

If Transurban actually paid to build those lanes on its own, it might have been worth considering. But Transurban didn’t. The scheme was almost entirely bankrolled by a $1.6 billion funding package from the federal government and Virginia taxpayers. Transurban’s meager $349 million up-front contribution amounted to less than the cost of interest on the project. Without bothering to wait to see how the Interstate 495 lanes performed, the McConnell administration rushed to put through an even dumber deal, to turn over existing lanes on I-95 to Transurban for tolling some time next year.

This is what passes as “innovative.” E-ZPass employs high-tech electronic surveillance equipment and transponders, but it’s “E-Z” only to boodlers as a variation on the same old scheme of rewarding favored cronies.