Lease now, pay later

Since the I-35 bridge collapse in Minneapolis, there's been renewed debate about how to pay for new and improved bridges and highways. Government officials in some states have already found an answer - let someone else do it.

There's a growing movement to privatize toll roads by leasing them to companies eager to make an up-front payment in exchange for the right to collect toll revenue under leases extending as long as 99 years. Busy highways in Chicago, Indiana and Virginia have already been leased to private operators. Privately run toll roads are being considered in as many as 20 states.

Many politicians love the idea, and no wonder. Toll-road privatization offers a quick fix - all gain and no pain, at least on the current officeholder's watch. Incumbent pols can cut ribbons for new projects and paper over their budget deficits without being bad guys. Instead of raising taxes, they can let some anonymous investor group take the heat for raising tolls (a tax by a different name) in the decades to come.

Cheerleaders for highway privatization include Wall Street hotshots who stand to collect fat fees, and true-believer libertarians who reject the concept of government as a shared public enterprise and want roads, schools, libraries and similar institutions to be used only by those who pay for them directly.

Not everyone is sold on the idea of transferring control of public highways to private companies . The American Trucking Associations calls privatization "a short-sighted solution with unknown long-term implications."

The ATA warns that for-profit highways will raise costs to users, and produce a Balkanized transportation system in which the most lucrative sections are controlled by private operators whose main goal is to boost profitability by squeezing maximum revenue from users.

Many drivers will have little choice but to pay the higher tolls, because secondary roads may be unavailable. Highway privatization leases usually include non-compete clauses that prohibit or severely restrict state and local governments from expanding nearby roads. It's a sweet deal for the contractors but not for the public, which effectively loses control of its highway transportation system.

The current Department of Transportation has been beating the drum for toll-road privatization, arguing that road use should be paid directly by users instead from general funds of federal, state or local governments. The idea is gaining momentum in an era when public treasuries are tapped out, and when many public officials prefer to outsource tough decisions on public policy.

But private toll roads represent a radical policy change, with uncertain long-term implications. One thing that is clear is that if highway privatization experiments don't work, 99 years will be a long time to live with a mistake.

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