Changing lanes

| July 05, 2007

Electronic toll lanes (right) were among the first upgrades made by Skyway Concession Co., the new private operator of the Chicago Skyway.

Truck tolls on the Indiana Toll Road rose again on April Fool’s Day – no joke. It was the second of four annual April 1 increases for all vehicles agreed upon by the state and the road’s new private operator. The road’s per-mile five-axle truck toll will reach 20.3 cents on April 1, 2009. It was around 9 cents before the first increase on April Fool’s Day 2006.

Why April 1? “It’s probably [Indiana Gov.] Mitch Daniels’ birthday,” quips Todd Spencer, executive vice president of the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association – a leading critic of highway privatization.

Daniels was the prime proponent of the Indiana Toll Road lease, which was met with widespread public opposition. The deal netted the state a $3.85 billion windfall – and a long-term contract emblematic of privatization’s potential pluses and minuses for owner-operators.

By 2009, if all goes according to the 75-year lease agreement, the Indiana Toll Road Concession Co., a partnership of two foreign companies, will have instituted fully automated toll collection, saving owner-operators time and fuel and decreasing congestion – all on a road with state-of-the-art maintenance. And the state’s $3.85 billion will go toward county road projects and paying off toll-road bonds.

On the other hand, critics argue, steadily escalating tolls will force many owner-operators to quit using the road. Congestion on alternate routes will increase as truckers and motorists avoid the tolls. Toll increases beyond 2009 could exceed what the state would have enacted had it kept the toll road.

Since the 1991 federal highway bill began liberalizing their regulation, 168 new toll roads (not including bridges), most of them planned as publicly owned facilities, have entered various stages of development, according to a 2006 U.S. Department of Transportation report. Long-term privatization is the latest wrinkle in the trend.

To date, the Indiana Toll Road is the only significant haul route converted to a fully private operation, though its Chicago connection, the commuter-heavy Chicago Skyway, is on a 99-year lease to the same investors, the Spanish firm Cintra Concesiones de Infraestructuras de Transporte and the Australian Macquarie Infrastructure Group.

Still, with more than 20 states considering or having enacted statutes that make the practice legal for new-road funding, owner-operators likely will be forced to spend more money or more time to get from Point A to Point B. Here are some of the developments owner-operators can expect.

HIGHER TOLLS. Owner-operator James Hartsfield of Baltimore, leased to C.R. England, is paid 89 cents a mile but not reimbursed for tolls. “If I get a trip out of New York, I might as well say I’ll be doing that free,” Hartsfield says. “After the fuel hits me, and the tolls hit me, I don’t have anything.”

The highest allowable tolls will be charged, critics say. “The public-private partnerships that are being promoted are those that come with the needs of investors put first,” says Spencer of OOIDA, which has called for an owner-operator boycott of the Indiana Toll Road. In its first year, the Indiana Toll Road Concession Co. has increased truck tolls nearly to the maximum allowed by the contract.

The initial dramatic yearly hikes allowed by the contract “were part of a deal to make the concession more attractive,” says Peter Samuel, a senior fellow at the pro-privatization Reason Foundation and longtime editor of Tollroadsnews.com. “The political muscle of commuters tends to be higher than that of truckers.” As a result, he says, “The truckers suffered larger toll increases.”

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