Libertarians Can’t Leave Their Love of Toll Roads

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Polls reveal that Americans oppose tolling. It has taken awhile to get there, but the anti-tolling movement is getting traction now. Reason’s Robert Poole recognizes the threat grassroots anti-toll movement organizations like Terri Hall’s TURF poses to the taxpayer-subsidized tolling industry that was spawned overseas decades ago, primarily in socialist Europe.

Terri Hall, a Texas home school mother of nine turned citizen activist leads a protest against foreign toll road company, Cintra

Terri Hall, a Texas home school mother of nine turned citizen activist leads a protest against foreign toll road company, Cintra

It is bewildering that so many on the right, particularly normally fiscally prudent libertarians, continue to advocate for toll roads. In fact, some are even criticizing conservatives who oppose them. Terri Hall, founder of the group TURF (Texans United for Reform and Freedom), found herself under fire by a libertarian magazine in August. Reason’s Robert Poole wrote an article labeling Hall and those who oppose toll roads as “right-wing populists.” He was worried that Hall has been effective ginning up opposition to toll roads, both in her home state of Texas as well as influencing a prominent article that recently ran in The Weekly Standard.

Poole’s article is a recognition of Hall’s leadership and effectiveness in the anti-tolling movement that is sweeping the country. He acknowledges that conservative leaders Michelle Malkin and Phyllis Schlafly – who no one would describe as populists – agree with Hall. It’s not just some “populist” thing, as he claims.

Polls reveal that Americans oppose tolling. It has taken awhile to get there, but the anti-tolling movement is getting traction now. Poole recognizes the threat that the grassroots anti-toll movement poses to the taxpayer-subsidized tolling industry that was spawned overseas decades ago, primarily in socialist Europe.

Texans in particular know what it means to battle against the odds, including the infamous Trans-Texas Corridor of the last decade. Today, it’s the Blackland Tollway-Northeast Gateway Corridor east of Dallas that has brought them out in droves to oppose a private corporation with the coercive power of eminent domain that will take their land to build an unnecessary toll road.

Equally as egregious, pro-toll road libertarians are pushing for public-private partnerships (P3s) to administer the toll roads. There is a fantasy that P3s are privatizing a part of government. The reality is otherwise.  P3s involve the government giving exclusive monopolies to favored businesses, which then have no incentive to keep costs down. The exclusive contracts don’t even have to go to the lowest bidder, either, the government can award them to the meaninglessly phrased “best value” bid. They aren’t much different than cable and electric monopolies, or the old telephone monopolies.

Hall explains some of the worst aspects of P3s running toll roads, “These contracts contain non-competition clauses that penalize or prohibit the expansion of surrounding free routes, artificially lower speed limits on free routes and increase speed limits on the tollways, force taxpayers to pay the private toll operator for losses in revenue (due to carpoolers, uncollectable tolls, natural disasters), use heaps of taxpayer subsidies and loan guarantees, and guarantee handsome profits.”

Toll roads end up being a triple tax, and are often managed by foreign corporations. One toll road in Dallas charges almost 95 cents per mile. How can anyone in their right mind defend that level of price gouging under the false pretense of privatization and free markets?

These inefficient relationships have proven fiscally unsound. ITR Concession Co., LLC, a U.S. toll road company part owned by the foreign-owned Macquarie Group, is filing for bankruptcy. It was unable to make a profit operating toll roads in Indiana. In fact, it appears that every toll road venture by the Australian Macquarie Group has failed – with taxpayers picking up the tab. Professional Engineers in California Government has a detailed article listing all the failed P3 toll road projects in California, as well as elsewhere around the world.

The problem is the libertarian wing on the right has grown stronger, as conservatives find common ground with them on government spying and perceived police state issues. The most powerful organizations on the right now include libertarian groups like Reason, CATO, the Competitive Enterprise Institute and FreedomWorks, funded largely by the libertarian Koch brothers. Where are the conservative organizations on toll roads? The Heritage Foundation leans toward tolling. The Selous Foundation for Public Policy Research stands firmly opposed.

The solution is a “pay-as-you-go” approach calling for responsible spending, with a constitutional federal role in transportation (Article 1, Sec. 8, Cl.3 and Cl. 7) and maintaining the financial integrity of the Highway Trust Fund (HTF), which has turned into a political cookie jar, wherein lies the problem – funding transit, parks, bike paths, walking trails, education, pensions, etc. that has diverted gas tax revenues and depleted the HTF. It may not be a perfect solution, but unless there is genuinely true privatization of the roads, it is better than the quasi-socialist, money-draining P3s.

President Reagan clearly understood the meaning of public-private partnerships, when he said, “What is euphemistically called government-corporate partnership is just government coercion, political favoritism, collectivist industrial policy, and old-fashioned Federal boondoggles nicely wrapped up in a bright-colored ribbon. And it doesn’t work.”

Fortunately, not all libertarians are drinking the Kool-Aid. Wes Benedict, executive director of the Libertarian Party, has come out against toll roads, explaining that they are not truly privatized roads. Timothy Lee, writing for the libertarian Cato Institute, also recognizes that toll roads in their current form are not operating as purely private entities. The Libertarian Party of Texas helped stop a toll road bill from going through the legislature. So, although libertarians like Marc Scribner of CEI claim libertarians all think monolithically about toll roads, he might want to actually look at what his own party thinks.

I’m very far to the right on fiscal issues – in fact so much so that I used to be Treasurer of the Libertarian Students at the University of Arizona, when I was in law school. But the reality does not match the rhetoric when it comes to toll roads. Private roads are one thing, but the “public-private” roads we see now are not private roads and are actually worse than the long-time status quo.