Opinion Editorial

By Dennis Polhill

Usually a terrorist is an extremist hijacking an airliner and holding innocent passengers hostage.  Currently the FTA (Federal Transit Agency) is holding mobility hostage to extort Colorado citizens.

In 1991, an intergovernmental agreement was developed between the Colorado Department of Transportation, the Regional Transportation District, the City of Denver and the FTA to add lanes on I-25 north of central Denver. Assuming that more people could be moved, new multiple-occupant vehicle lanes designed for High Occupancy Vehicles (HOV) were added at a cost of $222 million. The FTA contributed $71 million (32%).  Construction was $16 million per lane-mile.  By contrast, today’s proposal to double-deck I-70 to DIA is $10 million per lane-mile and a comparable California highway project recently came in at $3 million per lane-mile.  Did I-25 need to be so expensive?

Currently, though, utility is more important than money already expended.  The pertinent questions are: Can a minor donor like FTA dictate that service potential be wasted?  Isn’t CDOT responsible for efficient operation and for maximizing service to users?  The older general-purpose lanes remain congested. The HOV lanes never move more than 30% of their possible vehicle capacity. During hours open, use averages 16%; over 24 hours, use is less than 9%.  If taxpayer dollars were “real money,” there might be a problem with 84% of $222 million going to waste.

In 1991, the Oklahoma Turnpike became the first state agency in the U.S. to use electronic toll collection. Collection costs declined 91% and tollbooth accidents ceased. Technology and applications improved. This technology permits variable pricing, recognizing the reality that units of highway space and time are neither free nor equal in value. This reality reveals fatal flaws in the gasoline tax as a user fee.

One creative application of electronic toll collection is HOT (High Occupancy Toll) lanes.  Not only can HOT lanes self-finance new capacity and move more users over the same infrastructure, wasted HOV lane capacity can be captured at NO injury to HOVs. Surplus HOV lane capacity is sold to willing buyers. Price varies to ensure no adverse affect on free flow of traffic.

Recognizing the potential, Senator John Andrews successfully sponsored SB-1999-88.  It mandated that CDOT convert one HOV lane to HOT as a demonstration.  CDOT wisely requested a due date extension to July 1, 2001. Delaying provided the opportunity to evaluate alternatives, quantify conversion costs, estimate revenues, and help others understand the concept.  A $400,000 consultant study concluded that

I-25 would be Colorado’s best demonstration; conversion costs would be $3 million and users would reimburse conversion costs in six years.  Because some traffic will be removed from the free lanes, all I-25 users would benefit.

The FTA opposes this experiment.  A March 8, 2001 letter dictated that the demonstration project could not advance without full reimbursement of the FTA’s original contribution of $71 million.  The FTA stipulated that “general traffic [on HOV lanes] during peak traffic hours shall constitute a breach” of the original 1991 agreement. The FTA correctly asserts that general-purpose traffic might jeopardize the HOV character of the new multiple-occupancy lane. But general-purpose traffic is NOT the proposal.  HOT traffic is controlled via pricing to ensure free flow. Although FTA did not claim that CDOT might mismanage the HOT lanes by under-pricing tolls and attracting too many vehicles, such mismanagement would be counter to CDOT’s interests.  By claiming the project is other than it is, FTA has proven itself to be either ignorant or deceptive.

For those honestly interested in improving mobility and traffic flow, the I-25 HOT lane demonstration project offers small risks and potentially large benefits. FTA’s blocking attempt seems negatively motivated. A failed demonstration would revert to the former condition.  Therefore, they must fear success.  If the latter is true, then the FTA is a demagogue with a pre-defined political agenda, rather than a government agency committed to efficient service for its constituents.

The issue of Federalism (the division of responsibilities between federal and state governments) has become unclear regarding transportation; the U.S. Constitution was never amended to allow a federal role. Several presidents vetoed Congressional attempts to intrude into the state domain of transportation.  The federal share of the gasoline tax was a temporary tax for construction of interstate highways and was created under the guise of national defense to circumvent the Constitutional prohibition.  The same Constitutional limitation is the reason there are no federally-owned highways.  Federal involvement in mass transit as a protection against foreign invasion is preposterous and federal dictation of operations is a dangerous precedent to concede.

“Full use” of taxpayer-funded facilities is reasonable.  CDOT has an obligation to move forward. No objective observer would agree with the FTA’s indefensible stand.  With no injury to the original purpose, FTA’s suggestion of a payoff is extortion. Do Colorado leaders have the courage to stand up to the cowardly and criminal FTA?

Senior Fellow Dennis Polhill wrote this article for the Independence Institute, a free market think tank in Golden; http://www.i2i.org

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