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Road Warriors 

Privatization provides solution to congestion

Recent cartoons in The Charlotte Observer by Kevin Siers have suggested that those who believe Charlotte should attack congestion with roads rather than light rail are the intellectual equivalent of hump-backed cavemen.

But a look across the country calls into question exactly who is small-minded and years behind the times. While Charlotte and state leaders smugly embrace the early-1990s mantra that congestion cannot be attacked successfully with more asphalt, true visionaries in other cities are laying mile after mile of the stuff with the radical goal of getting people to work faster. And in many places, it's not costing taxpayers a thing.

It's maddening to watch state and local leaders throw up their hands over where they'll get $65 billion over the next 25 years to build and maintain roads while they contemplate massive tax hikes to pay for it all when innovative solutions are staring them in the face.

By 2030, the number of drivers on I-77 will more than double from 77,000 today to nearly 200,000. Local leaders' plan? Build a $470 million light rail line to the north of the county that will eventually transport 4,600 riders a day.

Aside from a long-planned expansion of I-485, there are no significant plans to increase interstate capacity over that period. None.

Meanwhile, in an August article, New York's City Journal catalogs billions worth of road projects in more progressive cities and states than Charlotte that will be built and run by private companies.

Here are just a few examples. Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels recently sold the right to operate the Indiana Turnpike as a toll road to a private company for a staggering $3.8 billion. Chicago mayor Richard Daley auctioned the Chicago Skyway to another company for $1.8 billion. (Daley is now fighting to privatize Midway Airport, which he thinks could bring in another $3 billion. Cha-ching.)

But there's more. As City Journal reports, within three months of closing the Skyway deal, an electronic toll-collection system had been installed and was helping move traffic along in a more logical manner. This resulted in reduced wait times and boosted Skyway use. That's right. When given a chance, private companies are finding ways to attract more traffic onto roads and move it quickly. But companies aren't just running these roads. They're also building them and adding lanes to traffic-choked interstates in places where drivers pile up to reduce congestion -- all for profit.

In return for a 35-year lease to manage and collect tolls on Route 125 in California, a private company is building an $800 million extension of the road. Virginia and a company called Transurban, which already runs other toll roads in the state, are studying an expansion of I-95 funded by more toll roads. And rather than raise its gas tax by 50 cents, Utah is seeking private financing to build the Mountain View Corridor -- which will connect Salt Lake City International Airport to surrounding towns. Meanwhile, private interests are building the massive Trans-Texas Corridor and New Jersey governor Jon Corzine is studying the potential sale of the New Jersey Turnpike to private interests for upwards of $20 billion.

But the key is true privatization, not toll roads run by the government using private contractors. As they have across the country, the private entities who lease these roads must also maintain them so the government doesn't have to.

A national study from the Reason Foundation ranked North Carolina the fourth worst state in the nation for urban interstate congestion. Only New Jersey, Minnesota and California have more urban interstate congestion than North Carolina. And a lot of that congestion can be found right here around the Queen City. The Texas Transportation Institute currently ranks Charlotte the second most congested medium-sized city in the nation behind Austin, Texas, which has light rail.

Even if voters vote to keep the mass transit tax in place and to go forward with spending billions on light rail, Charlotte still must tackle its congestion problems if it wants to remain economically competitive. While light rail does give people transportation "options," it doesn't make a dent in any kind in congestion.

Consider this. By 2020, one million additional people will move to this region and flood our roadways. Some 340,000 of them will locate in Charlotte. They'll expect to use our roads to do things that are important to them -- like getting to work.

It has been estimated that there is over $100 billion in capital being raised for private funding of road projects -- and that's just domestically. Overseas firms that have done privatization projects across Europe, where privatizing roads is more common, are raising hundreds of billions more.

A few weeks ago, local politicians attended a seminar about the potential of toll roads and emerged saying they might consider doing something along those lines by 2020. So far though, state leaders stubbornly refuse to contemplate turning over one inch of asphalt to private companies to run. If there's to be tolls, they want to run and maintain those roads themselves. That approach gets us nowhere and leaves us $65 billion in the hole.

If our local leaders were true visionaries, they'd be pushing the state to at least put out queries to private companies for toll projects to run, maintain and build extra lanes on I-77 and I-485. And they'd do it now. Why not explore what is possible before hundreds of thousands of additional drivers take to our roads over the next decade and a half?

Just a little something to contemplate next time you are stuck in traffic.

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