When was the interstate highway system privatized?
by Frank Cagle
Surely you’ve heard of (and been disgusted by) House Transportation Chairman Don Young. He’s the Alaska Republican who presided over the pork-laden embarrassment that is this year’s transportation bill. The one that included millions for Alaska bridges to nowhere, named after him and documented with a federally funded film project. Wait until you hear what he’s planning to do to us now.
Young has signed on to help a subsidiary of the Halliburton Co. to construct another set of interstate lanes, along Interstate 81 through Virginia. These four lanes, at a cost of $13 billion, would be for trucks only, and they would be a “privately funded” toll road. Considering Young’s interest and the federal money involved, there is a real question as to whether the truck lanes will stop at Bristol, or continue to White Pine, where I-81 ends.
The chairman has a vision of someday converting the interstate system, expanding it to include separate lanes for trucks only, financed by tolls. He has set a train in motion, he writes transportation bills, and you need to pay attention.
Young put $100 million in this year’s transportation bill for the “privately funded” project as a down payment on what he wants all interstate highways to become. Federal funds for the entire I-81 project will total $1.6 billion, according to Taxpayers for Common Sense. The leading contender to build the “private” toll road is STAR Solutions, a subsidiary of Kellogg Brown & Root Construction, which is a division of Halliburton. Young picked I-81 because it is convenient to Washington and will make a good demonstration project to sell the idea to his colleagues for the rest of the nation.
Young got $150,000 in campaign contributions last cycle from STAR Solutions, according to an advocacy group that supports the use of railroads.
I-81 also got picked because Virginia passed a law in 1995 creating the Public-Private Transportation Act that allows state agencies to join with private companies to build toll roads. STAR’s original proposal called for a $12 toll on cars and a $67 toll on trucks, according to the Roanoke Times . The legislature authorized truck tolls and deferred the bill for car tolls. The STAR Solutions proposal wound up as toll of over $100 per truck to cover the cost and make a profit without cars. A study by the Virginia highway department says any toll over $65 will encourage trucking companies to seek a route around Virginia or divert to state highways. If $65 is all the traffic will bear, and if the interstate improvements cost more than estimated, (Could that happen? It’s Halliburton!) isn’t it likely that cars will be assessed as well?
Can they really charge you a toll to ride on an interstate highway we built with taxpayer funds? Yes. Because the private company would have “improved” I-81 and thus these “improvements” can be paid for with a toll. The Virginia legislature would be faced with a choice to pay the shortfall themselves or toll cars. What do you think they will do?
If Young is successful with this “pilot,” will Interstate 40, which picks up Interstate 81 at White Pine and goes to California, be far behind? Would Tennessee pass a public-private bill that would mean millions for the road builders? In a red-hot minute.
But we have paid billions to build the interstate highway system. It’s ours, isn’t it? We face the prospect of spending more tax money, some private bond money, to make them bigger and then have to pay tolls to ride on them. Do you really believe that they can double the width of the interstate highway system, keep them maintained, and get all the money back just by putting tolls on trucks? No, it is more likely a move that will result in interstate highways becoming toll roads and put companies like Haliburton in charge of the nation’s highway system.
Virginia’s transportation commissioner Phil Shucett recently told his department to begin to negotiate a contract with STAR Solutions and do the necessary environmental and other permitting work, according to Toll Road News newsletter.
Perhaps Tennessee’s congressional delegation could tear themselves away from summer vacation recess long enough to give this idea some consideration. I can only come to the charitable conclusion that they had a dental appointment, or were merely asleep, when this measure came through the Congress.
In order to get their attention you might ask them if they think you will ever vote for them again if you have to pay a toll to get to work via I-40, I-75 or I-81. Perhaps they think the toll on I-81 will prevent the mob from getting to Washington to tar and feather them when people find out what’s going to happen.
Frank Cagle is a political analyst and the editor of Knoxville Magazine . You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org .