Training Pants for the 21st Century Motorist

Matt Rosenberg, senior fellow at Cascadia Center of the Discovery Institute, wrote a handsome argument for public-private partnerships (PPP) to put us out of our surface transport congestion-funding-emission misery.

Because I am a full-network, Road Use Charging (RUC) advocate (pay every mile driven and end the fuel tax), I prefer to rush headlong into the user-pay world with the revenue split in some network-optimizing way between road and transit financing. So I have long thought that PPPs are simply an interim measure because slow-grinding governments are stuck with a failing (failed!) finance model. I have long assumed that if they could fix that (I am an optimist!) P3s would not be necessary.

Matt’s first conclusion – better management offsets higher private debt costs and the extraction of profit – suggests P3 may be plainly a better model from a total cost of ownership perspective. I accept that. His second conclusion – building sooner brings earlier congestion and emission reduction and earlier restoration of productivity – needs two caveats. First pricing has to be right and shadow-tolls must not be permitted. Second, state and federal programs to move toward full network pricing must continue, otherwise, congestion abatement due to P3 activities will be transient since improved congestion circumstances invites new demand. The Matt Rosenberg article “How to pay for the roads still traveled” makes that point between the lines.

The real reason I prefer P3 investment is that this brings us tolled roads. These train the entitled motorist to see that roads are not free. The more tolled roads we have now, the easier the inevitable tax-shift from fuel-tax to VMT pricing will become.

Long an admirer of past USDOT Secretary Mary Peters, I learned from her that tolled lanes are “…a stepping stone to get people acclimated to paying a fee for use of a section of roadway…” (She was talking about HOT lanes at Brookings in April 2008. Get the video and transcript links here.)

So while the new roads that P3 programs give us may have immediate and visible motoring benefits, they are the training pants for the real surface transportation market of the 21st century.

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