Jay Bookman, deputy editorial page editor of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, likens toll-road leases such as Indiana's to Nigerian Internet scams in which foolish people think they are going to get "billions and billions in free money! Just step right up and sign here on the dotted line. . . ."
But of course, to make such an arrangement work, there's gotta be a sucker somewhere. Look in the mirror. You're it.
Think for a moment about the nature of toll roads. They depend on a captive market of travelers who have little or no choice but to pay extra to get where they need to go. That doesn't mean that tolls can't be an appropriate, useful way to finance roads. When travelers are tapped to finance the particular highway they use, a toll essentially becomes a users' fee, particularly if the tolls are removed once the project is paid off.
The concept of long-term leases, however, takes that approach to a whole 'nother level. In Indiana, Texas and elsewhere, government is putting its captive market of toll-paying travelers in the hands of a private company, which is free to generate new revenue by jacking those tolls higher than elected officials would dare.
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The long-term leases offer a way for government to privatize a tax hike. Even worse, that higher tax will be paid solely by the users of those toll roads, while revenues from that project benefit the entire state.
Sort of like cigarette smokers who pay a special tax that benefits the entire state, or alcohol drinkers, or . . .
The flaw in Bookman's argument is that people do have a choice not to use the toll road. The alternative routes might not be as quick or convenient, but they are free. So a potential risk he doesn't mention is, that if toll-road fees get too high, drivers will make more use of the alternatives, creating traffic problems and infrastructure stresses in places that do not now have them.