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.