Neither public-private partnerships (P3s) nor Interstate tolling must ever be imposed on American roads. The reason Eisenhower’s Interstate highways were an economic boon to America was the ease of connectivity and the natural economic development that occurred alongside them such as hotels, restaurants, and gas stations that popped up to service travelers. But tolls have a restricting effect and actually discourage road use by imposing an additional penalty on driving. This is not what America needs.
By Terri Hall | October 10, 2016
Henry Cisneros, President Bill Clinton’s HUD secretary turned lobbyist, is now advocating slapping tolls on existing Interstates as well as indexing the federal gas tax to inflation. But the most expensive and greatest threat to our sovereignty over our public highway system is his lobbying for more public-private partnerships, or P3s.
In a recent editorial published in the Dallas Morning News, Cisneros made the case that the government has underinvested in our highway system since President Eisenhower built it in the 1950s. Highway spending per mile has dropped 50 percent since then. It may even make sense to index the federal gas tax to inflation, too, with a cap to prevent a runaway gas tax spike, if inflation rises precipitously like in did in the 1970s under President Jimmy Carter.
However, there are several glaring shortcomings in Cisneros’ multi-level plan.
First, he fails to call for any accountability with the current federal gasoline tax. Depending on the year, up to 40% of the federal gasoline tax has been diverted to non-road purposes, primarily to transit programs. Until the current gas tax revenue is spent for the purpose for which the tax is collected and not squandered on other things, Americans have no appetite for indexing or increasing the gas tax.
Second, Cisneros wants to open up existing Interstates to tolling, which is double taxation. Currently, there’s a federal pilot program called the Interstate System Reconstruction and Rehabilitation Pilot Program (ISRRPP). Three states currently hold the slots available: North Carolina, Virginia and Missouri. However, no state has successfully implemented tolls on existing Interstates. Under the recently passed federal highway bill, the FAST Act, those slots will expire if unused, and it allows other states to apply for those slots.
Americans have been hard hit by Obamacare tax hikes, seemingly endless hikes in property taxes — Texas has the fifth highest property tax burden in the nation, as well as a growing local government debt burden —Texas ranks second only to New York. Throw stagnant wages into the mix and you have a recipe for economic strain, if not outright distress. Making Americans pay twice to use the same stretch of interstate will push most to the economic brink and some right off a cliff. Tolls can range from 12 cents per mile to over 50 cents per mile on publicly-run toll projects, compared to a gas tax funded road that costs a mere 1-2 cents per mile.
The most destructive of Cisneros’ policy initiatives is the use of more P3s. P3s give private, usually global, corporations the power to levy virtually unlimited toll taxes and benefit from eminent domain. Politicians love them because it outsources the tax hike to another entity. The corporations love them because they can soak taxpayers and get them to guarantee their toxic debt without accountability. P3s are 50-100 year sweetheart deals that allow well-connected private corporations to team up with big government to impose punitively high tolls, controlling who gets access to a fast ride and who doesn’t. While advocates like Cisneros undoubtedly claim tolls are a user fee, every P3 uses some kind of public money to back or guarantee the loans for these supposedly ‘private’ ventures.
In Texas, three of the four P3s signed also included state funds, with over a $1 billion in direct tax subsidies to date. So, tolls are no longer a user fee, but a tax paid by every taxpayer. Yet, only those who can afford to pay tolls can access them. Those who do, pay twice. Tolls on two Interstates now operated by Spain-based Cintra in the Dallas-Ft. Worth area charge up to 75 cents a mile during peak hours, forcing some area residents to pay $40/day just to get to work.
Neither P3s nor Interstate tolling must ever be imposed on American roads. The reason Eisenhower’s Interstate highways were an economic boon to America was the ease of connectivity and the natural economic development that occurred alongside them such as hotels, restaurants, and gas stations that popped up to service travelers. But tolls have a restricting effect and actually discourage road use by imposing an additional penalty on driving. This is not what America needs. Tolls matter this election cycle, and voters need to vote with their pocketbooks in mind or suffer the consequences down the road.
Terri Hall is the founder of Texans Uniting for Reform and Freedom (TURF), which defends against eminent domain abuse and promotes non-toll transportation solutions. She’s a home school mother of ten turned citizen activist. Ms. Hall is also a contributor to SFPPR News & Analysis.