Highway to hell?
Today's Washington Post details the proposed "Trans-Texas Corridor," a massive highway system that is estimated to cost $184 billion over a 50-year period, some parts of which would be as much as a quarter mile wide. Gov. Rick Perry, a Republican, touts the plan as "visionary," but to me it has the distinct aroma of boondoggle. The first stretch of the new system will connect Dallas to San Antonio, but the entire system would amount to 4,000 miles. Most of the new roadways would be paid for by tolls, which is fine with me, but many thousands of acres of wildflower-covered prairies would be ruined in the process. Beyond the enormous scope of the project, and its likely detrimental effect on the environment, the Post article points out a problem on the financial side:
Private-public transportation contracts make some analysts wary. The Southern Environmental Law Center, which monitors transportation projects in six states, found that similar agreements in Virginia, for example, are costing taxpayers millions through the subsidies or tax-exempt bonds the state has provided to private road contractors.
In other words, the cost savings that are supposd to come from giving the private sector a greater say in implementing such transportation projects may be illusory at best. Speaking of which, the Virginia Department of Transportation has been discussing a similar public-private project to widen Interstate 81 across the entire state, which was proposed by STAR Solutions. (They are a business technology consulting firm that is apparently a subsidiary of the Halliburton Corporation, but no such link appears on either entity's Web site.) For the last year or two there have been preliminary public debates on the issue, and now the issue is coming to a head. The report by the Southern Environmental Law Center cited by the Post criticizes the 1995 Virginia Public-Private Transportation Act and makes these principle recommendations:
- Provide for additional public input;
- Require that proposals be part of normal planning processes;
- Give the Commonwealth Transportation Board greater authority over proposals;
- Require private entities proposing a project to invest a certain amount of capital in a project;
- Require them to pay for independent verification of traffic and cost estimates.
SELC is a decidedly liberal organization, so their inherent skepticism of private enterprise must be taken into account. Even so, this kind of mega-project should raise the eyebrows of fiscal conservatives. As I mentioned on January 17, Delegate Ben Cline (R-Rockbridge Co.) offered a sensible compromise economy-size proposal to upgrade I-81 only at the traffic "choke points," while providing incentives to multimodal shipping via railroads. But even that is going too far for State Sen. Emmet Hanger (R-Augusta Co.), who has come out against the proposed widening of I-81 on the grounds that its costs cannot be justified. Sunday's Staunton News Leader harshly ridiculed Hanger for what they say is his tardy declaration of a position on this issue, but they really don't take issue with the merits of his argument. This bears further study... Is it really prudent for a state government to invest so much public money into an infrastructure that is geared toward 20th Century vehicles? What if the price of energy reaches the point that trucks lose their competitive edge over railways, and travel via passenger cars becomes more of a luxury than a "necessity"?
Indeed, what about the alternative 19th Century technology: are railroads the answer to our traffic woes? I'm inclined to have some sympathy for railsolution.org, and there is no question that more long-distance freight can and should be shipped via rail. We need to remember, however, that rail transportation firms tend to be bloated monopolies that resist innovation and depend on government guarantees. Reforming the way that railroads are regulated has to be part of any long-term transportation strategy. Encouraging innovative grass-roots pro-business initiatives can also yield big benefits; a prime example is the quasi-public Shenandoah Valley railway that took over the short (25-mile) rail line between Staunton and Harrisonburg which was abandoned by the CSX Corporation. And then there's AMTRAK, which is in desperate need of new thinking and flexibility, but remains shackled by its political patrons on Capitol Hill. The need for major reform there -- including the possible termination of some unprofitable long-distance routes -- should be painfully obvious to anyone who cares about rail travel.
No more car tax?
On a related note, the Republicans in Richmond seek to carry through on the "no car tax" pledge that was the basis for former Governor James Gilmore's victorious 1997 campaign. He called for phasing out and ultimately eliminating the property tax on passenger vehicles, which many people consider regressive in terms of its disproportionate impact on middle- and lower-income people. The reduction scheduled for last year was canceled, however, as part of the controversial budget agreement between Governor Warner and the Republicans in the General Assembly -- an agreement that we now know was based on faulty if not deceptive forecast budget data. This year the Republicans are determined to rectify that. The Washington Post recently called the GOP position "demagogic," which is a strange and inappropriate. They're just doing what they said they would! And after all, there is an expected surplus of $1 billion in the state coffers this year! To their credit, Republicans have proposed spending some of that surplus to restore the Chesapeake Bay. But can't the people get some of their own money back? There are some reasons for hesitation, such as the fact that local governments have long depended on getting a share of the car tax revenues. State legislators should help find a replacement revenue source for cities and counties. And to the extent that state revenues earmarked for transportation have been cut by the car tax reduction, there should be new taxes targeted more appropriately: on gasoline and diesel fuel consumption!