Privatization of roads wouldn’t best serve the public interest
Recently, there has been activity at the community level supporting the concept of toll roads constructed by private companies. Before we take this route, we must thoroughly examine what such a change in public policy would mean for our state.
There is a growing trend in the United States for privately financed roads. Many see privately operated toll roads as a panacea for our traffic problems, as they have the potential to increase the capacity of our roadways without raising taxes. Others encourage the construction of toll roads as an alternative to our plans for a transit system.
Chicago and Indiana have recently entered into private concession agreements for public roads, which extend as long as 99 years. America has been more resistant to free-market infrastructure construction than the rest of the world, but as bridges and roads deteriorate, private investment groups see great opportunities to reap profits over the long term.
Add to that, the Federal Highway trust fund will be $4 billion in debt by 2009, and many feel an increase in the federal fuel tax is long overdue. Hawaii is a donee rather than a donor state, which means it gets more from the highway fund than it puts in. Predictions are that raising the federal fuel tax by 3 cents a gallon would raise millions in revenue, while costing the average driver about $7.06 a year. Yet even this would not be enough.
According to the U.S. Transportation Department, the cost of fixing the highways and bridges of the United States exceeds $495 billion. If railroads and ports are included, the cost exceeds $1.6 trillion. Although Chicago and Indiana have forged ahead, opposition prevails in states like Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Texas. New Jersey Gov. John Corzine is reported to have said, "New Jersey roadways are not for sale."
In Hawaii, mass transit opponent Cliff Slater recently wrote, "Our policy makers need to get a firm handle on the financial risk taxpayers will be taking with the city's rail proposal." Yet modern transit solutions take cars off the road, reduce traffic, shorten commuter time, improve the public health, provide reliability and increase the quality of life -- all leading to economic well-being.
Slater has written in favor of toll road solutions and road privatization, thus endorsing policies that will put more cars on the road. In the long run, his solutions might provide enormous profits for investors who expect rising tolls to justify their investment, putting even more of a burden on taxpayers.
U.S. PIRG, a federation of state public interest research groups, an independent, citizen-funded group, is working to encourage public support for new public transportation projects and improved service, while making sure that privatization and toll road deals are in the public interest.
A recent report from U.S. PIRG cites the effect of multimillion-dollar deals in Chicago and Indiana, which have encouraged Wall Street investors and high-priced consulting firms to promote such deals to state and local government. In anticipation of huge profits, private road operators are promising miracles for our congested roads and highways.
Some would argue that this path is necessary because neither the state nor the counties have sufficient funds to build more highways. U.S. PIRG cautions that through such deals, the public loses control of transportation policy, and there is no guarantee that toll roads will deliver their promised value. The report cites such problems as an inability to prevent toll traffic from being diverted to local communities and difficulty changing traffic patterns on toll roads without paying additional compensation to road operators. The U.S. PIRG report also notes the difficulty of ensuring fair contracts when they stretch over multiple generations and changing community needs.
As public officials we have a responsibility to protect the public interest. Before we enter into any agreements allowing the governor or Department of Transportation to enter into private agreements, we must thoroughly investigate this change in public policy. With the price of oil nearing $100 a barrel, selling our roads to put more cars in service would not be the responsible choice.
Rep. Marilyn Lee (D, Mililani-Mililani Mauka) is a member of the Oahu Metropolitan Planning Organization and serves as vice chairwoman of the House Finance Committee.