Op-Ed by Anna Urman, Republican Candidate for Delegate in the 43rd District
Public-Private Partnerships (“P3”s) are being hailed as the perfect solution to what ails Northern Virginia most: our traffic problem.[read_more]
‘Let’s get a private entity to construct a road and collect tolls’, goes the refrain, ‘and we all win, without burdening the taxpayers or VDOT resources. Certain lawmakers cite the success of the Interstate 95 and Interstate 495 express lane projects as the model for future infrastructure improvements in the Commonwealth.
However, reality isn’t as rosy as some would like us to believe. The privately-funded project to build the I95 Hot Lanes cost Virginia Taxpayers $71 million. Granted, that number is a small percentage of the total estimated project cost of $925M, but a $71M investment into a privately funded project is quite a bit of skin in the game. Add to that the state’s investment of the road itself: only 9 new miles of road were laid down by the vendor, the rest were existing HOV lanes – and $71M for 9 miles (at around $7M per mile) sounds like much less of a good deal.
The benefit is congestion relief, proponents claim. However, this was never intended for regular rush-hour travelers. In fact, in the announcement of the contract, Governor McDonnell stated that they were “expected to pay to use express lanes only a couple of times a week when they need a faster trip, with a typical trip during rush hour costing between $5 and $6.” That estimate is far below the average rush hour price, and quite a bit off the highest estimates of as much as $24 for a 29-mile trip. Let’s add that to our contributions towards that initial $71 Million investment.
Also, let’s not forget what Virginians have lost to the P3 endeavor. Before the conversion to Express Lanes, HOV lanes were limited (to 3+ occupied vehicles, motorcycles, and hybrid vehicles) in rush hour, while remaining all-access roads at other times. Under the new plan, we Virginians LOST our ability to travel on an existing road, which had been there already, paid for with our tax dollars – because the state and the contractor needed to turn a profit. Certainly, one can still travel on that road for free – given the right transponder, and at least 3 people in the vehicle.
So here is the big picture: The I-95 Express partnership, under a 75-year lease, is the clear winner. Virginia’s liabilities and concessions, however, far outweigh the benefits we receive under the current terms:
- The lease entitles the private partner to have first dibs on construction of all new lanes along the existing corridor. That is, if Virginia determines we need to widen the road, the private partner gets right of first refusal – the option of bidding on additional lanes to be added as toll lanes. Virginia abdicates its authority to determine whether additional lanes should be tolled or not. Virginia also abdicates its ability to fairly compete new transportation projects.
- Local roads are the biggest losers: Route One, Occoquan Bridge, and Southern HOT Lanes are treated as “Compensation Events” under the contract: that means, if the maximum revenue hasn’t been reached by the vendor from its operation of the toll lanes, any improvements to the roads above will result in damages paid to the Express Lanes vendor based on the vendor’s estimate of potential losses. That’s right. If we start fixing our local roads, we owe our private “partner” money. Lots of money.
- Taxpayers aren’t liable… unless there’s default. In the event of contract termination, Virginia takes over responsibility for the roads. Yes, this is standard contract language. Yes, the possibility isn’t immediate – but with such a long-term lease, the possibility looms in the future, and Virginia taxpayers would be on the hook.
Tolling on the Interstate Highway system has been a contentious and highly unpopular endeavor. The Virginia General Assembly passed a bill in 2013 limiting tolling without express approval of the General Assembly. Also, tolling, while bringing an immediate but short-term job growth, negatively impacts the immediate area by causing diversion of traffic onto local roads that cannot handle the additional congestion and resulting in greater safety risk to the surrounding communities. If VDOT negotiates the next P3 contract the same way as they did the existing ones, those local roads won’t even be allowed to improve their way out of the ensuing quagmire.
Public-Private Partnerships can work, in theory. I’m a big proponent of letting the private sector take on solutions to problems the government can’t solve as quickly or effectively. However, the priority must remain the public interest. Under the current P3 scheme, the public interest has been sublimated. At the very least, let’s hope the Commonwealth of Virginia can negotiate a more favorable agreement going forward.
Learn more about candidate Anna Urman and her campaign here.