Golden opportunity or fool’s gold?

| July 05, 2007

Imagine sharing the road exclusively with other professional truckers, with no pesky four-wheelers in sight.

That could become a reality if highway planners in places such as Atlanta, Virginia and California get their way. The Atlanta proposal would add truck-only toll lanes on about half of I-285 and on I-75 and I-85 outside the perimeter highway. Adding the lanes would reduce congestion and improve safety, say advocates such as Robert Poole of the Reason Foundation. But, he concedes, “It depends on how high the tolls are.”

Increased productivity would offset the cost for truckers, says Richard Norment with the National Council for Public-Private Partnerships. “If you cut two to three hours you can save $300,” he says, assuming an operational cost of $150 an hour.

But many truckers oppose the idea, particularly if the truck-only toll lanes are mandatory, as has been proposed in Atlanta. A mandate means driving the toll lane “isn’t worth doing to anyone who uses the road, so we’re going to have to force them,” Ed Crowell, president of the Georgia Motor Trucking Association, recently told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Proponents argue that truck-only lanes eventually would ease congestion by enabling truckers to haul more freight using fewer, but bigger, trucks. Language in a recent energy bill would increase truck weight to 97,000 lbs. with an additional axle, says Bob Costello, American Trucking Associations’ chief economist. Getting such legislation passed is “a huge uphill challenge,” he told the CCJ Symposium in Tuscaloosa, Ala., last month. “What would make those size and weight gains easier for politicians to stomach is if we started to separate traffic.”

In January 2006, when the 75-year Indiana Toll Road lease was not yet a done deal, the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association issued an urgent letter to its Indiana members. “The toll road is an integral part of the National Interstate Defense Highway System,” OOIDA’s Todd Spencer wrote, “and the governor wants to sell it to a foreign country!”

In November 2006, as the privatization controversy turned eastward, Spencer issued another statement: “Proposals to sell the Pennsylvania Turnpike to private companies are un-American, and to consider selling this national asset to foreign companies is just plain anti-American.”

Aside from all the other issues raised by highway privatization, the fact that the major bidders tend to be foreign companies particularly sticks in the craw of many critics. “Is America for sale?” asks conservative activist Phyllis Schlafly in a recent essay titled “Greedy Politicians Seduced by Siren Song of Filthy Foreign Lucre.”

Foreign-run U.S. toll roads are relatively few. They include the Chicago Skyway and the Indiana Toll Road, the Dulles Greenway and Pocahontas Parkway in Virginia and the new South Bay Expressway in San Diego. But others are in the works, and global toll-road-management companies are interested in more U.S. business.

If expertise is sought globally and not locally, as Pulitzer winner Thomas Friedman argues in his best seller “The World Is Flat: A Brief History of the 21st Century,” then expertise in private road management – for now, at least – is mostly abroad, where such deals have been common for years. So you’re sure to hear more about “foreign landlords” as the debate over highway privatization continues.

The pro-privatization Reason Foundation argues that foreign companies operating in this country are subject to the same U.S. laws and regulations as U.S. companies. U.S. law enforcement doesn’t declare a property off limits just because it’s foreign-run.

Thriving foreign-owned companies in the United States also tend to employ many Americans. Just ask anyone at Freightliner or Mack, foreign-owned since 1981 and 1990, respectively, or any owner-operator who makes his living driving their trucks – or Volvo’s.

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