After all the talk about highway congestion, it seems we finally may be edging towards action. If we're not careful, though, we could end up adding enormously to the cost of using our highways without making a dent in the problem. It all comes down to funding and political will.

We've reached the point were almost everyone recognizes that simply building new roads is not the solution to congestion. Instead it's going to take a combination of limited, but judicious new highway projects and a rethinking of how we use the resources we already have.

Despite the sizeable highway tax we pay with every gallon of fuel consumed, we still call our interstates freeways. While those fuel taxes have the ability to generate huge amounts of revenue for highway construction and maintenance, they lack a direct link to road use for most of us. The most effective way to begin dealing with congestion is to create that link by putting a value on highway use based on demand. In other words, let all who travel the highways pay per-mile fees that rise in peak demand periods and fall when traffic flows are light and the highway is being underutilized.

The federal government seems willing to consider that approach. Earlier this year Sec. of Transportation Mary Peters and other federal officials publicly supported congestion pricing and dedicated freight corridors with their own price structures as potential answers to congestion. In almost the same breath, however, they also raised the issue of privatization.

Given voter resistance to any new government levies, politicians find it almost impossible to resist “free money” schemes that promise better services at no public cost if we'll just turn over some part of the public infrastructure to private industry.

If you're running for office, privatization is a winner two ways. First, the cash raised by leasing publicly built roads can be used to cover budget deficits without raising taxes. That was the attraction for Illinois in its recent privatization deal. The second win is that when it finally comes time to face up to funding reality, they can avoid responsibility again and let the private owners be the bad guys.

Put aside the more philosophical questions about selling public assets built with public funds to private businesses and the shortsightedness of deficit spending with dollars raised by selling those assets. The biggest problem with privatization of our highway system is that it ignores the question “At what cost?”

You'd be asking private investors to put up billions of dollars to lease roads. Once they've made the initial payment, additional investments are needed to bring those roads up to current demands and maintain them. On top of that, they will expect profits commensurate with the size of those multi-billion dollar investments. And their only source of revenue? Tolls.

If trucking wants effective solutions to congestion, it has to be willing to pay for those solutions. But along with that willingness to pay comes the right to demand that the money be spent as effectively as possible. As tempting as privatization might seem today, it's unlikely anyone is going to be happy with the bill when it finally comes due.


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