By Terri Hall l December 30, 2011
The Reason Foundation delivers again. One of the top think tanks that lobbies 24/7 to privatize our public infrastructure through toll roads, known as public private partnerships (or P3s), released a “scientific” poll that claims 55% support P3s and 58% of respondents prefer tolls to gas tax increases to pay for new roads. Guess what, both are tax increases, and most folks hedge their bets thinking they can avoid paying a toll but they can’t avoid a gas tax increase. So since they’d prefer NO tax increase at all, they answer they’d prefer tolls over gas tax increases on a survey, where leading questions box you into their pre-determined trap.
Then, the survey specifically asks how to pay for NEW lanes. But, it fails to address the problem we have in Texas, where the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) and local toll authorities are tolling existing highway lanes. Nor does it address the fact that they’re using gas taxes, public bonds, vehicle registration fees, and even property taxes to build toll roads. Drivers will not be able to access those tax-funded lanes without paying a DOUBLE tax — a toll, too. It’s taking away our freely accessible public highway system and making those who cannot afford to pay tolls (in addition to gas taxes) second class citizens relegated to stop-light-riddled access roads or surface streets to get around.
The Reason-Rupe poll also lacks a question that shows a comparison of the cost-per-mile to drive a toll road versus a freeway, when gauging preferences for tolls versus gas taxes. It costs 1-2 cents per mile to use a gas tax funded road. Average toll rates for a public toll road in Texas range from 12 cents per mile to 25 cents per mile. When the road is handed over to a private corporation in a P3 arrangement like Reason Foundation advocates, toll rates jump up to 75 cents per mile, which is like adding $15 to every gallon of gas you buy. Giving respondents such information that reveals tolls will add $200-$300 PER MONTH or more to your commuting costs versus $100 more PER YEAR (on average) with an increased gas tax would make it a more legitimate measure of the public’s preferences for gas tax funded roads versus tolled roads.
Also, 30% of those surveyed DO NOT WORK; they’re either independently wealthy, retired, stay-at-home moms, or unemployed. So naturally, these are NOT the subset of folks who experience a daily commute nor are they the ones stuck in daily congestion since they’re not the ones traveling in congested peak hours. So, that significantly skews the data in favor of tolling, when 30% of those surveyed will never realistically have to pay those toll-tax increases, anyway. In addition, 58% of respondents don’t live near a toll road; so, again, they’re happy to say they’re for toll roads, when they think it doesn’t effect them. Classic divide and conquer politics.
The only questions that are presented assume higher taxes are necessary to expand our highways. Conveniently, there’s no question that says Congress and state legislatures should stop diverting road funds to non-road uses and, instead, require they properly spend the taxes collected at the pump that we already pay to maintain and expand our highways without the need for tolls. We’d likely see nearly 100% of Americans answer with a resounding ‘yes’ to that one!
The Reason-Rupe poll also claims 57% of respondents favor the conversion of HOV lanes to HOT lanes. Well, that’s certainly not the case in Georgia where there’s a feverish backlash to the conversion of an HOV lane on I-85 that’s resulted in more congestion and toll rates so high ($5.40 one way) that the once full HOV lane is now nearly empty during peak hours.
When the conversion of HOV lanes occur, few commuters realize that the number of people required per vehicle is usually increased from 2 to 3, bumping 2-person carpoolers into the non-toll lanes actually creating more congestion on the highway than before the conversion. Meanwhile, those who can pay the $5-$10 per trip in new toll-taxes to access those lanes get to whiz along in near empty lanes while the rest of us are trapped in worsening traffic congestion with no free road expansion in sight.
So, increasingly, toll roads are becoming roads for the elite. Guess who gets free toll tags for themselves and their families? That’s right! Politicians. So for them, voting for endless new toll-taxes being dubbed ‘user fees’ is really a win-win for them because they don’t have to cast a single controversial vote to raise the gas tax and they won’t have to pay that new toll-tax since they’ll get a free toll tag.
Path of least resistance
Politicians will always take the path of least resistance. They have no problem increasing taxes, so long as it’s a hidden tax or they can pass it off as a ‘fee’ (and that’s true of BOTH political parties). They have polls like this one produced by a clearly biased Reason Foundation to put the fear of God in them never to raise the gas tax, turning politicos toward what they consider to be the lesser of the evils — tolls — as the way to ‘solve’ their self-imposed road funding woes.
Both the Senate and House versions of the new federal highway bill rely heavily on tolling to expand roadway capacity, both include the authority for states to enter into P3s as well as to continue taxpayer subsidies for those privatized toll roads through the TIFIA loan program. The House version even encourages loans of taxpayer money for toll roads (both public and private) through State Infrastructure Banks.
P3s put that power to tax in the hands of private corporations, leaving politicians the ‘out,’ blaming the private companies for the tax increases, not themselves. P3s, and now many public toll roads, contain non-compete language in their agreements that penalize or prohibit the expansion of free roads surrounding the toll roads, guaranteeing free alternatives remain congested for the life of the P3 contract.
Infrastructure Investor has declared in its Daily Digest today: “There has also been a wholesale movement at the national legislative and regulatory level to support PPP (or P3s) approaches. The rearguard opposition from a few ‘anti-privatization’ legislators, mostly Democrats in the House, has disappeared. Instead Democrats and Republicans, in Congress and in the Administration, compete in declarations of support for innovative privatization approaches to reduce costs and provide the funding needed for US infrastructure.” This is according to insider John Schmidt, whose firm, Mayer Brown, will personally benefit from such deals, who used the song ‘This land is my land’ to describe how totally the special interests ‘own’ our politicians. It also demonstrates how eager they are to eviscerate the private property rights of Americans by exploiting the governmental powers of eminent domain to steal your land in the name of a ‘public use,’ for a road, and then give that land over to a private corporation in a P3 using taxpayer subsidies in deals that create virtual monopolies and guarantee the private entity’s profits for 50-100 years.
Of course all of these vital details are nowhere to be found in the poll questions by Reason Foundation. They make it sound so rosy as if the private entity is doing us and our cash-strapped government a favor by offering to build or expand our public roads with no cost to taxpayers. When in fact, every P3 deal so far has included massive amounts of taxpayer subsidies as well as non-compete agreements that manipulate free routes to force motorists onto the private toll roads.
Facing tight budgets, most states are turning to tolling to pay for highways regardless of the status of the federal highway bill. In Texas, nearly ALL new lanes (and even some existing lanes) are slated to be tolled, with an extraordinary 500 toll projects currently being contemplated. The same trend is taking hold all across the country. This new form of runaway taxation in the hands of UNELECTED boards will not be avoidable and will instead encumber future generations with huge debt obligations because of these exotic financing schemes.
The most affordable and most accountable way to fund public roads is the gas tax, bar none. It literally takes an act of Congress (or a state legislature) to raise the gas tax, but it only takes the whim of a bureaucrat to raise a toll. Runaway toll-taxes in the hands of unelected toll authority boards, or even worse, private corporations in P3s, whom the taxpayers cannot hold accountable, tramples upon the public interest, threatens our freedom to travel and puts the ability to drive that much further out of reach for the many Americans struggling to make ends meet.
A healthy dose of TRUTH-IN-TAXATION is in order for 2012; and, the so-called think tanks who produce such biased polls, as Reason Foundation does here, are guilty of contributing to the shroud of deception that’s allowing this piracy of the public’s assets through tolling and P3s, not unveiling it.
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 eight turned citizen activist. Ms. Hall is also a contributor to