Friday, April 9, 2010

Politicians Have a Poor Record of Managing Toll Road

We had a brutal winter. The potholes prove that. The damage that motorists don’t see yet is the cost of plowing and salting the roads. That cost will show up later this year when paving projects are scrapped for lack of money.

Making matters all the worse is the continuing failure of our leaders to address a shrinking road fund. Prior to 1980, the user taxes that comprise the road fund grew sufficiently from year-to-year to adequately maintain our roads. But since 1980, driving habits have changed drastically, thus making the user tax concept archaic.

In the 1970s, cars got very poor gasoline mileage. Owners also traded cars more often because cars wore out faster. When gasoline hit $1 per gallon in 1979, consumers demanded fuel efficiency and long-term warranties. Ever since, the two main user taxes – the gasoline tax and the privilege tax on motor vehicle sales – have increasingly lagged.

Every year, there is talk amongst the pundits about building toll roads and bridges as a way to solve our road funding woes. Tolls are just another user tax. Given the high cost to build a highway or a bridge, there has to be sufficient traffic to pay the tolls that, in turn, pay off the bonds that funded the project.

Unfortunately for West Virginia, there is not enough traffic to justify toll roads or bridges anywhere in this state. But even if there were, politicians do not have the will to maintain tolls to keep up with inflation.

The original West Virginia Turnpike was funded by revenue bonds in the 1950s. Within four years of its opening, the turnpike found itself unable to pay interest to the bondholders, a situation that remained so until 1979. The turnpike never did accumulate a sinking fund sufficient to retire the bonds.

The turnpike was rebuilt as I-77 under an agreement with the Federal Highway Administration which paid for 90% of the cost. The state’s road fund paid the balance. The agreement allowed for tolls to remain on the highway until the original bonds were retired, and then the road was to become a free interstate.

However, a funny thing happened on the way to becoming a free road – that’s funny peculiar, not funny ha ha. The new four-lane highway became a favorite north-south route. Traffic also increased significantly when I-64 was completed. The bankrupt West Virginia Turnpike quickly became a money maker, and the politicians smelled bacon on the griddle.

If you came into the movie late, that’s okay. You know what happened next. The Turnpike Commission became the WV Parkways, Economic Development and Tourism Authority. This led to Tamarack, one of the biggest money-losing enterprises ever concocted by the statehouse gang. The Authority also removed turnpike tolls everywhere except the three main toll barriers, a perk for locals that cost the turnpike some $2 million in annual revenue at the time.

Today, the Authority’s bastard child toll road is facing over $335 million in deferred maintenance with about one third of the 88-mile highway rated as substandard. And there seems to be faint political will to raise tolls to adequate levels or to cure Tamarack’s annual cash drain.

This is how West Virginia politicians run a toll road. If you think that the state should consider building more toll roads, then you deserve a desk at the state capitol in the Head Examiner’s office.

There are two plausible solutions for the state road fund’s inadequacy. The first is simple. As the state maintains a network of secondary roads that were once, and still should be, the responsibility of the counties, the personal property tax collected on motor vehicles by each county should be transferred to the state road fund. It makes sense to do this because the counties have gotten off scot-free since 1933 when the State Road Commission was formed to rescue Depression-era counties from their road building and road maintenance duties.

The second solution does not involve taxes. If the state eliminated the prevailing wage requirements in road contracts, the annual savings would be huge. West Virginia cannot justify paying road contractors to hire laborers at $34.71 per hour. But it does just that because $34.71 per hour is the "prevailing wage" for the lowest-paid laborer.

That’s funny ha ha.

The impact of these high prevailing wage rates doesn’t end there. Road construction is seasonal work, and construction workers’ wage-based claims are a big drain on the unemployment fund which you, the motorist, also pay for.