Ybarra and Gilroy in Virginian-Pilot: Midtown Tunnel PPP needs to move ahead

My Reason Foundation colleague Shirley Ybarra and I have a new op-ed in today’s Virginian-Pilot on why the current political gamesmanship over Midtown Tunnel PPP is counterproductive, why it’s the most viable path forward to reduce congestion in the Hampton Roads region, and why other states are using similar tolling and public-private partnership strategies to supplement the increasingly insufficient gas tax to get needed projects built.

Here’s an excerpt:

Many local officials are trying to delay the $2.1 billion expansion of the Midtown Tunnel. Some are worried about the expected toll rates. Others want the government to build it. It is this never-ending political gamesmanship and short-term thinking that make building critical infrastructure so difficult.

Freeways aren’t free. And neither are tunnels.

The possibility of a $1.84 toll for the tunnel during rush hour reflects the costs of building and maintaining this important project. Legislators and pundits suggesting that the government should raise gas taxes and build the tunnel are fooling themselves. Drivers are not about to embrace a 10-cent a gallon, or higher, increase in the gas tax they’ll feel every time they go to the pump.

A national Reason-Rupe poll of 1,200 Americans asked voters if they’d rather pay for new transportation projects through higher gas taxes or pay tolls when they use new roads.

Fifty-eight percent of Americans said new roads should be funded by tolls, while just 28 percent said new road capacity should be paid for by tax increases. A whopping 77 percent said they’d oppose raising the federal gas tax.

And let’s not forget that Hampton Roads voters shot down a one-cent sales tax increase for transportation at the ballot in 2002, just as Northern Virginia voters did with their proposed half-cent sales tax increase.

More importantly, the gas tax is no longer a viable way to pay for major projects. Cars keep getting better mileage per gallon, which means the tax delivers less and less to government coffers. That Toyota Prius is racking up the mileage on roads while paying less in gas taxes thanks to its fuel efficiency. In fact, electric car owners, like those driving Nissan Leafs, will cause wear and tear on roads while never paying the gas tax.

The government has been promoting and mandating fuel efficiency for decades. As a result, gas tax revenue is dwindling.

Unless the state and feds want to reverse course by banning fuel-efficient and electric cars and mandating Hummers, it’s time to face facts: The United States and Virginia need a new long-term, sustainable funding source for transportation. User fees and tolls are the fairest, most equitable way to do that.

The Midtown Tunnel public-private partnership is a great example of why that’s the case. The region and state are expected to put in $362 million to build a $2.1 billion project. It is a project Virginia and Hampton Roads simply cannot afford on their own. […]

Continue reading the rest of the commentary here.

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