This weekly post features recent news stories that highlight and update themes previously covered throughout NMA E-Newsletters and Alerts.
Editor’s Note: Texas’ flagship toll road, SH 130, made news in 2012 for having a posted speed limit of 85 mph, the fastest of any road in the United States. The private operator of the road, SH 130 Concession Co., hoped the high speed would appeal to drivers, but two years in, the company is facing financial difficulties, low traffic volumes and “junk bond” ratings from financial analysts. A default would leave the Texas Department of Transportation with the choice to either operate the roadway on its own or to contract with another operator. Along with the financial risks toll roads and other Public Private Partnerships foist on the public, the other noteworthy part of this story is how the road got its speed limit in the first place. Read Jim Baxter’s account here, in which he sums up the abuses associated with PPPs and why they’re not in drivers’ or taxpayers’ interests.
Public Private Partnership Abuses
The current political rage of “Public Private Partnerships” has shown it’s underbelly in the transportation sector through the cancer of ticket camera installations, privatized parking meters, and toll roads. The potential for corruption and citizen abuse reaches new heights when governmental power is merged with corporate profit motivations. Controlling and mitigating forces like legitimate regulation and fair competition are rendered impotent when governments go on the hunt for profits.
One of the most egregious examples of late, and there are many to choose from, is the new Texas toll road Between Austin and San Antonio, State Highway 130.
Knowing that motorists want faster roads, the private company that built SH 130 campaigned for high speed limits, up to 85 mph on the wide open stretches of the new toll road. However, the TX transportation authority deemed that such a high speed limit required special consideration, specifically a $100 million dollar bribe—er—payment to the state. Not to be unreasonable, the state only wanted $67 million dollars for an 80 mph speed limit. The entrepreneurs went for the whole enchilada, $100 million and 85 mph.
Of course this transaction has been promoted as being all about safety (after all TX DOT did conduct the requisite studies to determine an appropriate safe speed limit), but most mere mortals haven’t been able to figure out why a $100 million dollar bribe makes an 85 mph speed limit safe, or why $33 million fewer dollars require a “safer” 80 mph speed limit.
State officials must feel they need much of this extra money to replace speed limit signs on the existing public (non-toll-way) highway where the speed limit is arbitrarily being reduced from 65 mph to 55 mph, of course, again, for safety. I should mention that the state is also guaranteed a percentage of the tolls collected on SH 130. It’s probably safe to assume that some of this new found wealth will be used to establish perpetual construction zones, oppressive enforcement, lane closures, and ticket cameras on adjacent (read “competing”) highways.
That any public official, or private business person, can publicly stand up and proclaim that these measures are dictated by public safety is the epitome of arrogance.
However, I’ll admit that the same officials could have publicly proclaimed that they cut a deal with the toll road owners in which, for $100 million dollars and a percentage of the profits, they would go along with higher speed limits (fine by me) and drive traffic to the new road by making travel on adjacent roads as miserable as politically possible. That’s the real deal and anyone with an average I.Q. knows it, and that’s the way it goes down. Public Private Partnerships in action.