Innovation not opposition

| December 12, 2008

By Linda Longton, Editor
llongton@rrpub.com

We are at the crossroads of an infrastructure crisis: Congestion costs our economy billions annually, roads and bridges need repair, our highway fund is nearly bankrupt and earmarked pet projects get funded while major truck routes go ignored.

When it comes to the future of our nation’s highways, the status quo no longer delivers, a fact that has many states taking matters into their own hands. This past summer, Indiana leased its toll road to an Australian-Spanish consortium for 75 years and $3.85 billion, and will use the cash to fund road improvements throughout the state. Many Hoosiers opposed giving control of a state asset to foreign investors and questioned how the proceeds would be spent.

Similar concerns last month prompted the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association and the American Trucking Associations, among others, to form a coalition opposing such public-private partnerships, also called P3s. Americans for a Strong National Highway Network seeks to “hold government accountable for ensuring financing is transparent, motivated by public good and dedicated to transportation purposes.”

Opposing new ideas is easy. Recommending viable alternatives is not. For example, ATA suggests funding road improvements through an increase in the fuel tax. While that might bring more money in, it would do nothing to cut through the grindingly slow and highly politicized process for allocating highway funds – not to mention actually building or repairing roads.

That’s the beauty of P3s. Indiana got its money up front and will use it over the next 10 years to fund more than 200 transportation projects – ones that wouldn’t have been possible without this partnership and that will improve the mobility of goods and people.

OOIDA likens P3s to a “pawnshop mentality” – hocking highways now to pay the full price later. But the Indiana Toll Road’s lease agreement is carefully worded to protect the public interest, outlining limits on toll increases, commitments from the lessee for maintenance and improvements and even allowing the state of Indiana to revoke the contract for cause – and keep the money.

Let’s face it: Politicians will not risk losing power by backing unpopular fuel tax increases. Nor do they welcome funding methods, such as P3s, that take them out of the picture. We need a fresh approach to building and maintaining our roadways and P3s are one way to do it. Are they a one-size-fits-all solution? No. But they represent the kind of innovative thinking we’re going to need if we want our transportation system to remain world-class and competitive.

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