DOT model legislation for highway privatization is 'flawed'

| 1/9/2007

When U.S. Department of Transportation officials announced this week that they would provide states with model legislation to pursue private leases for highways and infrastructure, OOIDA officials were furious.

"We think it's outrageous," said Todd Spencer, executive vice president of the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association. "It is unprecedented for DOT to be writing model legislation for states and we are contesting it."

The U.S. DOT issued a press release Monday, Jan. 8, citing congestion relief and highway safety as reasons for allowing private investors to build and maintain new toll roads, leasing existing toll roads or add lanes to major highways.

Cable news network CNN contacted Spencer and OOIDA for comments on the issue of privatization, and Spencer appeared Tuesday, Jan. 9 on "Lou Dobbs Tonight."

In the interview with Dobbs, Spencer discussed the "crony politics" of the Bush administration and Wall Street for touting privatization of the nation's infrastructure.

"Those roads belong to the public," he told Land Line Magazine following the interview. "We need to tell them, 'these roads are not yours to sell.' "

Contacting lawmakers, he said, is something truckers and others can do to show their feelings on the issues affecting commerce and daily quality of life.

Spencer cited recent news from Pennsylvania as an example of how big money can sway political agendas.

Gov. Ed Rendell solicited letters of expressed interest from possible investors for the state's turnpike. That action led to 48 letters of interest, showing how domestic and foreign investors are waiting for such deals to be offered.

"The Pennsylvania Turnpike could fetch billions," Spencer said, but the long-term costs to consumers, truckers and motorists would be astounding, he added.

Pennsylvania, like Indiana officials claimed about their state in 2006, is strapped for highway cash, making it tempting to fall for the lure of private investment in roads.

But Spencer believes those same states have shown irresponsibility when assembling their highway budgets in recent years as they continued to work on legislation to allow private investment in their infrastructure.

"We need to hold our elected officials accountable for our highway dollars," Spencer said.

Private investors from Spain and Australia were successful in 2006 in leasing the Indiana Toll Road for 75 years, paying $3.85 billion up front for the right to collect the tolls long term.

Pennsylvania could be next as Gov. Rendell grooms the investors for a possible bidding process for the turnpike.

Ohio, New Jersey, Delaware and Kansas are on a growing list of states seeking private investment in their turnpike systems.

And with the U.S. DOT pushing model legislation to help them out, Spencer believes the inevitable is possible without an intervention from the public.

"The message the administration is sending to the states is, you don't have to be responsible for your transportation budgets, you can just sell off the roads," Spencer said.

 - By David Tanner, staff writer