The trouble with tolls
Atoll-road project in San Diego, once held up as a model of the “innovative” public-private partnerships, collapsed last month. The South Bay Expressway filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection after being open for business less than three years. Proponents of the tolling fad insist that allowing private companies to charge motorists to drive on roads represents the free-market solution to all of our transportation funding woes. The South Bay Expressway failure shows that plan is a road to nowhere.
Thanks to gasoline prices around $3 a gallon and the ongoing recession, hardpressed consumers weren’t interested in shelling out an additional $4.50 to drive 10 miles. Macquarie Infrastructure Group, the Australian firm that owns the expressway, assured federal highway officials that 60,000 paying customers would use the road daily. In fact, only 22,600 did so, leaving the project without enough revenue to sustain its debt obligations.
It turns out that estimates based on rosy scenarios are the norm in the world of tolling schemes. A Texas Department of Transportation study completed last year found that a majority of toll-road projects overestimated traffic levels in the first five years by at least 20 percent to 30 percent. Because public transportation agencies generally cut deals with private tolling companies behind closed doors, such detailed forecasts are not available for public review until long after the contract is signed.
Plunging traffic is also the norm nationwide. The Pocahontas Parkway in Richmond reported a 12 percent drop in traffic last year. Transurban, the Australian company that owns the road, responded by raising prices every year since 2008 and is scheduled to continue doing so until 2016. Dulles Greenway traffic is similarly down 7.2 percent, and Macquarie has put in motion a series of regular price hikes.
In a true free-market environment, the projects would follow the law of supply and demand, dropping rates to attract new customers. Instead, the foreign companies operating these roads are hiking tolls as fast as they possibly can — the opposite of what one would expect in a truly competitive marketplace.
Toll roads get away with this conduct because they are state-sanctioned monopolies, not free-market operations. Bureaucrats and politicians turn to public-private partnerships because they, in effect, outsource unpleasant revenue-raising duties to private companies. As we see from the South Bay Expressway, the deals governments strike with companies to perform this task frequently are based on faulty, unsustainable assumptions.
We hope Virginia Gov. Robert F. McDonnell heeds this lesson and drops his support for the foolhardy plan to impose tolls on the Interstate 95/395 high-occupancy vehicle lanes.