Fox 5 (WTTG--TV) automobile-centric perspectives in transportation reporting (and tolls)
We were watching the news the other night and there were three transportation stories. All were very much "driven" by the perspective of the car driver. One was on automobiles taking cuts at the intersection of the Key Bridge and Canal Street in Georgetown and repainting to create a distinct "island" and the installation of .lane delimiters to prevent that behavior. The newscasters were proud because this was done in response to one of their previous stories. (I've already forgotten the second story.)
High Occupancy Toll Lanes on Freeways and mistaken charges. The third story ("Man gets $17000 E-ZPass fine for unpaid $36 express lane tolls") was about how a guy got screwed by TransUrban, the operator of the High Occupancy Toll lanes in Northern Virginia, the I-495 Express Lanes.
He had a transponder and automatic replenishment on his EZPASS account, but on some trips the transponder wasn't acknowledged by the recording equipment. (Most new tolling systems don't employ toll booths, but automatically record and bill trips through the system.)
He said he wasn't notified of the trip recordation errors. He ended up getting 17 summons--each with a $1,000 fine--for each unpaid trip. The FOX5 investigative reporter helped him get this knocked down to under $15 each, but he was still screwed.
Then there was the inane discussion between the anchors and the reporter about the toll system, etc., that was pretty much devoid of substance. Certainly they didn't provide any substance of how the lanes came to be. Or that there isn't a good system for dealing with these kinds of problems, because the toll roads are controlled by a private operator, not the State of Virginia.
Image from AA Roads.
The real issue of HOT Lanes and private sector operation of roads. While the newscasters were patting themselves on the back for helping the guy, they didn't show much knowledge or depth about the culture behind the HOT lanes scheme--which is pushed by conservative interests, and apparently is a big agenda item of the libertarian Reason Foundation, which has published a number of reports on the topic.
The Miami Herald has a nice investigative piece, "Toll lanes becoming all the rage in Florida," on the back story behind the creation of these types of freeway lanes in Florida. Of course, providing that level of information is beyond the depth and capacity exhibited by local television news programs, including WTTG-TV.
Also see "The hidden price of public-private partnerships" from the Toronto Globe and Mail. From the article:
Governments are essentially “renting money” they could borrow more cheaply on their own because it’s politically expedient to defer expenses and avoid debt, Prof. Boardman added. P3 has become a “slogan” with often dubious benefits, he said.
Based on a new study of 28 Ontario P3 projects worth more than $7-billion, University of Toronto assistant professor Matti Siemiatycki and researcher Naeem Farooqi found that public-private partnerships cost an average of 16 per cent more than conventional tendered contracts. That’s mainly because private borrowers typically pay higher interest rates than governments. Transaction costs for lawyers and consultants also add about 3 per cent to the final bill.The states say they don't have money for freeway expansion, so the private sector builds the lanes in return for multi-decade long contracts. For example, the concession for the Midtown Tunnel in Norfolk, Virginia is 58 years.
In Virginia and Maryland, HOT lanes were initiated by Republican governors, but are now part of what is considered normal, standard operating procedure.
Arlington County's principled opposition. Because Arlington County, Virginia's Master Transportation Plan is specifically focused on reducing single occupancy vehicle trips they did not approve of extending such lanes on freeways (I-395 ad I-66) in their county. And that is the rub. Do such lanes encourage more driving or ease congestion?
Needless to say, the Washington Post editorial page didn't favor Arlington's position ("When plan = vision and policy is consistent:; Arlington County and HOT lanes").
Note that the ArCo opposition wasn't about tolls, but about the way such lanes promote more driving. (They may or may not have a position on privatization as well, but that wasn't an element of the suit.) The County was punished by the State Legislature for their opposition, and retaliated by taking away the county's ability to assess tourism taxes on hotel stays.
Tolls and the Silver Line. Tolls have been a major funding source for the Silver Line, paying upwards of 50% of the total cost. The State of Virginia has provided very little funding towards the system's construction.
Besides federal funding, the majority of funding has come from tolls assessed on the Dulles Toll Road, control of which was transferred to the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, which is the agency given ultimate responsibility for funding the Metrorail expansion project, because of the ostensible reason that the purpose of the line is to provide access to Dulles International Airport (cf. "Short term vs. long term thinking: transit, the Washington Examiner, Fairfax/Loudoun Counties vs. DC").
Prices have escalated over the course of the construction of Phase One, which added five stations serving Tysons Corner, McLean, and Reston in Fairfax County, opening for service in July, and will continue to do so ("Silver line changes equals higher toll road charges," WUSA-TV).