By Terri Hall
December 22, 2017
Tolls hit $44 one way to go 10 miles on Interstate 66 in Virginia. Rub your eyes and read that again. Tolls have become the new ‘drug’ of choice for politicians and bureaucrats. It’s become a legalized form of highway robbery. While elected officials try to navigate the mess they’ve made by unleashing unelected transportation bureaucrats with the unfettered power to enter into secret contracts with foreign corporations behind closed doors and giving them carte blanche access to commuters wallets with virtually no limit, it’s no wonder toll rates have reached unsustainable levels in a few short years after state lawmakers embarked on the grand toll experiment.
With little checks and balances, commuters are now locked into congestion misery or face financial hardship the likes of which have never been seen in America simply to get to work. For many, working will no longer pay the cost of getting there. It’s not just I-66, but also interstates 95, 395, and 495. Express toll lanes, often referred to as ‘managed’ lanes, are the new normal in many metropolitan areas, especially in states that jumped on board early due to the influence of Bob Poole and the Reason Foundation — like Florida, Texas, and Virginia.
Managed lanes can mean toll lanes for single occupancy vehicles and free express lanes for buses and carpoolers, although stingy bureaucrats and the private toll companies often require tolls from carpoolers, even if it’s a discounted rate. Indeed, some toll contracts require three people per vehicle instead of two, making carpooling that much harder.
Often toll advocates say if you can’t pay the toll, get on a bus or carpool. Buses usually ride free and carpoolers ride for free or at a discount. However, the vast majority of the traveling public cannot practically get around on a bus or through carpooling. In fact, many of these contracts require the taxpayer to compensate the private toll operators if too many carpoolers use the toll lanes. So the public pays one way or the other. They also pay because toll managed lanes do not improve the congestion on the surrounding free lanes as a recent report on Interstate-405 managed toll lanes in Washington state revealed.
Managed lanes also play into the hands of progressives who want to control people’s commute and use it to create barriers for cars while making it easier for transit and carpoolers to get around. The idea is to get you out of your vehicle and into mass transit. However, after 45 years of collecting data, Federal Highway Administration statistics show transit ridership remains flat.
Carpool lanes have not fared any better. Studies show that carpool lanes do not increase the number of carpoolers, but merely capture those who were already riding together. Despite decades of government social engineering, it’s failed to separate Americans from the most efficient and convenient option — one’s personal vehicle. Ridesharing has solved the door-to-door problem of mass transit and has already transformed transportation in spite of government attempts to shut it down.
Tolls driven by greed
Despite managed lanes’ popularity with politicians driven by dollar signs and the ability to outsource this tax decision to unelected bureaucrats and even private, global corporations, tolls are not only becoming increasingly unpopular with the public, they’re financially unsustainable. The very financial existence of some families are threatened by these totally outlandish toll rates. It’s no longer a decision about whether a family can afford to eat out this month, tolls this high literally impact whether or not to have children or continue working where the cost now outweighs the benefit.
Congestion pricing, where the toll rates vary and change in real time based on the level of congestion, allows bureaucrats behind a computer to blame the rates on some algorithm and/or some contract they signed with private toll operators whose financial interests now trump the public interest. Transportation policy has been deliberately severed from any accountability or reach of the taxpayers. It’s truly become confiscatory taxation without taxpayers’ consent.
In Texas, even a publicly operated managed toll lane project on MoPac in Austin had toll rates exceed $1/mile in just the first 10 days of operation. With tolls at that rate, it’s equivalent to paying an additional $25 for every gallon of gas you buy. The blowback has been swift and fierce. Under Perry, Texans were tormented by his intransigence on the toll issue — likening his push for tolls to that of a zealot hell-bent on paying-off the many cronies who contributed to his campaigns to keep him in power longer than any Texas governor.
Then came Texas Governor Greg Abbott. He actually campaigned against toll roads and promised to fix Texas roads without more taxes, fees, debt, or tolls. Taxpayers finally had a champion in the Governor’s mansion. However, it seemed no one told the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) since its governing board, the Texas Transportation Commission comprised of five appointees of the governor, continued its quest to turn virtually every highway into a managed toll lane across every Texas city. It all came to a head a few weeks ago with Abbott and Lt. Governor Dan Patrick drawing a line in the sand issuing statements directing the commission to redo their plans without tolls — effectively killing 15 new toll projects in one fell swoop.
It was a win for taxpayers that drew immediate reaction by special interests and overzealous local governments bent on tapping this lucrative new revenue stream. One lobby group formed under the moniker of Texans for Traffic Relief, for the express purpose of lobbying for more tolls, particularly the use of these controversial private toll contracts. Other existing mobility coalitions and chamber of commerce groups like Transportation Advocacy Group Houston issued an email call to action to write to the commission to demand tolls remain an option for local governments. So the early Christmas gift to taxpayers will soon be erased without constant vigilance by the public.
Toll track record abysmal
Even in the face of failure, toll proponents continue to say they’re working as advertised. They claim those who can pay the exorbitant toll rates, even as high as the sticker shock of $44 each way, get a reliable commute to work in return. They neither consider nor care that the 95-98% of the public that cannot access those lanes have their commute degraded to the point of a parking lot. Policy makers and politicians have no incentive to expand free lanes since they have such a gravy train financial incentive to keep sticking it to the public.
Agreements known as non-compete clauses actually prohibit or penalize taxpayers if expansion of free lanes surrounding the toll lanes effects the toll operator or bond investor’s profits. Such is the case with SH 130 near Austin in Texas along with the contracts in Virginia. Nearly every private toll deal has ended in bankruptcy, like the SouthBay Expressway in San Diego that went bankrupt in less years, ditto for SH 130, and soon to follow was the bankruptcy of the Indiana Toll Road. Yet politicians and their minions continue to seek approval for more.
Taxpayers again thought they had a big win when the Trump Administration announced it, too, was pulling the plug on such public private partnership (P3) toll road deals, in large part due to the very public abject failure of the I-69 P3 contract signed by, then Governor now Vice President, Mike Pence. Yet the same cabal of special interests who lobbied for them in the first place, remain part of the swamp known as Washington D.C. and continue to lobby for more tolls under the guise of ‘local control.’ Local control has come to mean local pay-to-play cronyism, placing taxpayers under the local tyranny of high taxes, unsustainable debt, endless social engineering hostile to commuters and working families, and big spending.
What taxpayers need are courageous politicians like Abbott and Patrick on the federal level to find their voice and defend Americans from this highway robbery known as toll managed lanes. It’s time to restore the middle class and protect their interests above special interests. If transportation policy is left on auto pilot, the shrinking middle class worker will be priced completely off public roads in short order.