- The Washington Times - Monday, June 15, 2009

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Virginia commuters are feeling the pain of the commonwealth’s incoherent transportation policy. Frustrated drivers face massive delays thanks to a pair of ill-conceived projects that converge around Tysons Corner. Motorists are unlikely to see much relief anytime soon as the state bureaucracy is committed to avoiding the heart of the traffic problem.

On the one hand, the state government pleads poverty and claims that it lacks the funds to expand capacity on the region’s badly overloaded roads. On the other hand, it has come up with $5 billion to spend on a Metrorail line to Washington Dulles International Airport.

The new Silver Line’s funding source is no mystery. In November, the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) effectively transferred ownership of the Dulles Toll Road to the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority. While some might accept the idea that charging user fees is a fair way to fund major infrastructure projects, in this case, the tolls are being used to give others a free ride. Charging those driving cars to fund a train line is a wealth transfer from motorists to those who take public transportation. It’s essentially a tax that encourages Metro use and discourages driving.

Even before the predictable cost overruns, $5 billion is a lot of money for a Metro line. To give a sense of this project’s scale, consider if the government handed out $50 vouchers for taxi rides. One hundred million of those vouchers could be funded for the estimated cost of the rail system.

To make matters worse, VDOT is aggressively moving to establish more tolls on our freeways. The agency has handed a chunk of the Beltway to a foreign corporation recently caught giving $176,000 in illegal campaign donations to state lawmakers. In return for building new lane capacity that Virginia should have built years ago, the Melbourne, Australia-based Transurban Group will have the right to charge tolls for 80 years. At a rush-hour rate of $1 per mile, a daily commuter who drives 14 miles on the Beltway would pay $7,280 a year.

On the surface, it appears that VDOT is passing off its responsibility to the private sector in this deal, but the free market is barely visible here. Transurban is only putting up $349 million for its contribution to the project. Federal and state taxpayers are subsidizing more than four-fifths of the cost to finance this $1.9 billion deal through a series of loans, grants and guarantees.

That does not seem to bother politicians in Richmond, who have shown little interest in making life better for suburban commuters. For the trans- portation bureaucrats, tolling is just another means of disguising yet another tax on hardworking Virginians. And while tolls are being levied to pay for a rail line, drivers won’t get any relief from road congestion.

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