Chief at Austin TX toll authority says must be open to considering business tollers - like China

September 3, 2009

Mike Heiligenstein, executive director of the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority, the Austin area public toll authority writes that Americans need to be more open to a variety of ways of financing and managing highways, including business or private tolling. He notes that America in the present age is unusual in the extent to which tolling is seen as the exclusive domain of governments and government authorities - odd given the suspicion of government in healthcare and  other spheres.

He notes that this dependence on government to finance and manage roads is rather new. In the 19th century virtually all ferries, bridges and major highways were financed, built, operated and tolled by the private sector.

Here is Heiligenstein's column:

"On July 27, 2009, China's Sichuan Expressway Company generated big news when its stock price tripled after an initial public offering. I mention this because it highlights how the United States differs dramatically from much of the industrialized world when it comes to the financing, construction and operation of highway infrastructure.

"For the last 50 years, we have relied almost entirely on the government to build and operate our highway system. This, in a capitalist country who's citizens are often highly critical of government run programs. Ironically, one of the biggest debates in our country today is about healthcare reform and whether a government run program should be created to compete with private sector insurance companies. Critics of the proposal frequently say the government program will not be as good as a privately managed program.

"I don't bring this up to inject myself into the healthcare debate, that might put my health at risk. Instead, I use this example to point out to readers that unlike healthcare, when it comes to roads and bridges there has been a tremendous outpouring of opposition to private sector involvement.

(COMMENT: True in some states like Texas certainly, also in Indiana and Pennsylvania but not the case in Virginia, California or Illinois where ownership and operation of tollroads by international companies has been quite uncontroversial - editor)

"The funny thing is, government run roads are a relatively new phenomena in the United States. Prior to the 20th century, almost all roads, bridges, canals and railroads were built by private companies. It wasn't until the Unites States government obtained greater taxing authority in the early 1900's that government began assuming a dominant role in the financing and operation of transportation infrastructure.

"Today, in the face of stiff opposition to higher taxes, we are faced with a dilemma. We need a modern transportation system to compete in the global market place, but we've been unable to reach political agreement on how to fund the improvements that are necessary. Instead, we continue a band aid approach to policy making while putting off difficult decisions that are required; this while the transportation funding crisis is deepening.

"In most industrialized countries, private sector investment has been the preferred option. Here that idea has been met with significant opposition. Much like the healthcare debate, the debate over private investment in infrastructure has been clouded by misinformation and scare tactics. Today, most people in Central Texas seem to think the local toll roads are owned by a Spanish Company. There might be nothing wrong with that, but it simply is not true.

"As the head of a government transportation agency, it would be easy for me to oppose private investment. But I care too much about Central Texas to put my own self interest first. Instead I advocate for education and understanding of the facts. As citizens, we need to face up to the fact that roads are not free, and that unless we want our infrastructure to devolve into resembling a third world country, we are going to have to increase our investment in transportation infrastructure (as well as other infrastructure). Where that investment comes from is ultimately up to how well our political and policy leaders inform the public, and then you make the choice." (END COLUMN)

Heiligenstein's column is published under the heading "Mobility Matters: A closer look at issues affecting Central Texas mobility".  He says it's a blog he'll be writing from time to time that offers his perspective on the issues affecting transportation and mobility in his area.


also on Sichuan Expressway Company Limited see:

A couple of historical American private turnpike scenes shown nearby.

TOLLROADSnews 2009-09-03

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