By Terri Hall l May 8, 2012
In testimony before Congress, the Association of American State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO) announced its opposition to a bill introduced by Senator Frank Lautenburg called the ‘Commuter Protection Act,’ S. 2006, designed to protect commuters from escalating toll rates, primarily on bridges, by enacting federal oversight.
According to AASHTO’s web site, membership is strictly limited to public transportation officials, not the private sector:
“Associate membership is available to sub-state and federal transportation agencies in the United States, as well as many transportation agencies in other countries. Examples of those who qualify for associate membership are port, toll, and highway commissions or authorities, foreign transportation agencies, and city DOTs. Membership is not extended to individuals or private sector entities like engineering firms or other private companies.”
Therefore, all of its money for lobbying comes from taxpayers. Also note that membership is open to foreign transportation agencies. Eugene Conti testified for AASHTO and argued the use of public-private partnerships (P3s) would be hampered by the legislation.
Why? P3s mean punitively higher toll rates than publicly financed toll roads. For instance, the toll rates projected for the P3 for an approximately 10 mile segment of Interstate 635 known as the LBJ highway in Dallas will be 75 cents a mile during peak hours. On a proposed P3 for a segment of Interstate 35, also in the Dallas area, the toll rates are projected to be 85 cents a mile.
Without the ability to jack up toll rates as high they want without accountability to the taxpayers, the private developers will take their marbles and go home. Private toll operators want taxpayer-funded freebies to sweeten their deals, too, like federal TIFIA loans and other profit guarantees at taxpayer expense. It’s the most expensive way to fund roads.
Taxation without representation
In testimony during the 82nd Session of the Texas Legislature in 2011, a lobbyist for 6 toll authorities called Regional Mobility Authorities (or RMAs), Brian Cassidy, even admitted to lawmakers that they (meaning the lobbyists who wrote the initial bill that created RMAs) intentionally set-up RMAs as un-elected boards because bond markets don’t like taxation tied to taxpayers (who can presumably throw a wrench in private investors’ demand for ever-escalating toll rates and their guaranteed profits). Translation: they want taxation without representation. The same tyranny that started a taxpayer revolt in 1770 and an American Revolution in 1776.
So, AASHTO, made up of our state and local transportation agencies, is lobbying for unrestrained public and private sector gouging of our citizens – lobbying with TAXPAYER money no less. Most P3s are contracted with foreign entities, so it begs the question, who is yanking AASHTO’s chain to testify against this legislation, foreign or domestic interests? Likely both, which threatens national and state sovereignty over our public infrastructure. Georgia Governor Nathan Deal rightly called P3s “ill-conceived sell-outs of state sovereignty” and said there’s a better way forward, during his state-of-the-state address in January.
Regulation or accountability?
S. 2006 allows the Secretary of Transportation to initiate an official inquiry if toll rates start to get too high, and it also allows the taxpayers to file a formal complaint and eventually to seek redress in the courts if the toll complaint is not satisfactorily addressed by the administrative ruling by the Secretary or an administrative law judge.
Section 135 (a) simply requires tolls to be: “(1) just and reasonable; and (2) subject to review and regulation by the Secretary, upon complaint or the initiative of the Secretary, including with respect to increases in the amount of tolls.”
While the opportunity for abuse and delay on projects would exist with more red tape from the feds, there’s a reason this bill has been introduced. The American Automobile Association (AAA), among others, protested the abusive toll rate hikes on a series of bridges in New York and New Jersey. The toll rates exploded to $9.50 up to $15 ONE WAY.
Of course, these toll entities, or in the case of the NJ and NY bridges, the Port Authority, are completely shielded from public accountability and there is no way for taxpayers to redress their grievances. When government gets out of control with taxation, constituents rightly complain, and the tendency of government is to enact yet more government as the solution.
Toll gluttony begets big brother
If toll interests and DOTs don’t want big brother breathing down their necks, perhaps they ought to stop sticking it to taxpayers by tolling everything that moves and keeping the toll rates OUT of the hands of elected officials and instead choosing to place toll rates firmly in the hands of UN-elected, unaccountable bureaucrats. Or worse, private corporations!
For the most part, the bill only applies to toll bridges, but an interesting section of the bill, Section 3, requires the Comptroller General to study the use of tolls by state DOTs around the country and how to make them more transparent and accountable:
“As soon as practicable after the date of enactment of this Act, the Comptroller General shall conduct, and submit to the appropriate committees of Congress a report on the results of, a study–(1) to evaluate the use of tolls by interstate authorities to maintain and improve surface transportation facilities; and (2) to make recommendations to increase transparency and accountability of the funding decisions by those authorities.”
While little ever seems to be gleaned by yet another congressional study of something, who is looking out for the taxpayer in the big picture? If one-third of all new capacity was tolled in the last decade, and much more still ahead, the cumulative economic impact will be staggering over time. It’s high time some oversight and direct accountability enter the picture.
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