The State of Virginia recently received an unsolicited offer from a group of businesses. This consortium wants to take over the operation and maintenance of the Dulles Toll Road, a major thoroughfare here in Northern Virginia. The details are sketchy but the group appears to want the right to run and improve the road for the next fifty years. In return they will give the Commonwealth about a billion dollars in ready cash and commit to making modest improvements to the road.
The Dulles Toll Road connects Northern Virginia inside the beltway and the Capital Beltway with the key business and residential areas in Northern Virginia. These include Tysons Corner, Reston, Herndon and Washington Dulles International Airport. (Airport traffic rides free on the Dulles Access Road. The Dulles Toll Road runs parallel to and outside the Dulles Access Road.) The Dulles Toll Road also connects with the Dulles Greenway, a private and obscenely expensive interstate quality road that for those who live in northern Loudoun County.
The Dulles Toll Road is one of these roads that most residents can neither live with nor without. With four lanes of traffic in each direction, it moves a crushing number of commuters every day. During our extended rush hours, and particularly where it merges with the Capital Beltway, it acts as a giant parking lot. Cars spew tons of hydrocarbons tediously wait to merge onto the beltway. On the other hand, there are not a whole lot of alternatives during rush hours. The back roads, such as they are, are just as congested. The typical commuter now pays $1.25 each way for the privilege of waiting in traffic. The tolls were recently increased fifty cents in each direction, ostensibly to help pay for a future extension to the Washington Metrorail system to Dulles Airport.
The current group-think is that corporations must be able to do everything better than government. So naturally there are plenty of people (most of them Republicans) who would be glad to turn over essential services like maintaining our roads to the private sector. Virginia has been doing a lot of this “innovative thinking” lately. For example, the state plans to let two companies create HOT (High-Occupancy Toll) lanes on 14 miles of the Capitol Beltway. Apparently, the Virginia Public-Private Transportation Act legalizes such dubious deals. Naturally, Congress wants to smooth the way for more of these private sector road projects. Yes, Congress wants to give corporations the right to raise money for private toll roads with bonds that are exempt from federal income taxes. (And guess who will be left holding the tax burden.)
Why is the Dulles Toll Road is under the radar of private developers? It is no mystery to me. First, it is a beautiful and well-maintained road. Second, it is a huge and profitable cash cow, generating profits in the tens of millions of dollars every year. It has a captive set of customers with few alternatives except to move out of the area. Third, while the consortium can make claims about making improvements to the road, there is not much they can really do to speed up the traffic. That is because the traffic simply bottlenecks at the exit points. These are principally Tysons Corner and the Capitol Beltway. Oh sure they promise to widen exit and entrance ramps from the beltways onto the toll road. Fat chance that will do much good. Until the dubious day that the beltway gets eight lanes in each direction, the traffic during rush hours on the toll road will not speed up.
Perhaps they will turn the one lane in each direction that is currently reserved for carpools into a HOT lane. This should allow anyone with sufficient dough to cruise at highway speeds, even during rush hour. In addition, perhaps those HOT lanes could feed into the HOT lanes planned for construction on the Capital Beltway.
Do we see a pattern here? Consumers can expect higher tolls from these deals but little relief from congestion. For those with the money you will have your HOT lanes but you will pay premium prices. For most HOT lanes are designed for flexible pricing. The idea is HOT lanes should never be congested, so authorities keep raising the tolls until they run smoothly. It is another “wonderful” example of the market economy at work. Yes, it is wonderful all right. If you are rich you will get where you want to go quickly. As for the rest of us — you know the “little people” who live on normal incomes and do not get special tax breaks — we will be stuck in worse traffic and paying more for it.
Ugh. Let us just say no to more of this nonsense. Here is a crazy notion, but one that has worked well for much of our nation’s history: let us keep the roads public and free. If we have to have toll roads, let us make them equal access. Our public roads are not the airlines. There should not be a first class section for the privileged and coach class for the rest of us. Maybe in Animal Farm some pigs are more equal than others are. However, if I have any influence, it will not happen in my country.
I have written Virginia Governor Mark Warner expressing my displeasure at this brazen attempt by the private sector to pick my pocket. I hope if you live in Virginia that you will write too. Nevertheless, wherever you live, you need to be watchful and make your transportation views known. We complain about gas taxes. We raise hell if our legislatures want to up the tax by even a nickel a gallon. However, we will allow private companies to skim hefty profits off our public roads. You know what this really is? It is a tax increase. Only this time instead of any profit from these roads going into more transportation projects or, God forbid, even our public schools, they go straight to stockholders of these corporations.
No more. Sadly, this is more evidence that we now live in a country of, by and for the corporation. What is next? Is a private company going to buy the roads in my subdivision? Will I have to pay a toll to get out of my own driveway? Is this the kind of enlightened private sector innovation we want to foster? Or are we being played for fools? I suspect the latter.