Car Guy

Democrat Double Taxers

You should be hot under the collar over HOT lanes.

By 5.19.10

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No one likes paying for the same thing twice.

So what is it with these High Occupancy Toll (HOT) lanes that charge people for the privilege of being able to drive on roads and highways financed by motor fuels excise taxes?

They're sprouting up all over the country. Or rather, the infrastructure for charging motorists to use existing roads is sprouting up all over the country. Roads that were built (and continue to be maintained) with money extracted from these same people via motor fuels taxes, which average about 40 cents per gallon (see here for details).

In my home state of Virginia, for example, the last governor (Tim Kaine) wanted to give what amounts to taxing authority to a private, for-profit company (Transurban of Australia) over a major portion of I-95/I-395 in Northern Virginia, near D.C. -- for the next 80 years.

Drivers would have to tithe to Transurban for the privilege of using these roads -- roads that were built for public use and with funds derived from the motor fuels taxes that all drivers must pay, every time they fill up.

Naturally, there's to be no reduction in the motor fuels tax, nor any rebate or credit given to drivers who pay the current taxes but don't elect to use the for-profit HOT lanes.

A decent case can be made for privately financed and constructed toll roads that charge user fees. If, for example, a private company can gin up the capital from investors (not taxpayers) necessary to build a new road or highway -- and restricts use of the finished road to drivers who pay to drive -- fine. That's free market capitalism in action. It could also be a great deal for motorists. There would be less traffic -- and possibly, the owners of the private toll road could set higher (or even no) speed limits, since the state would not be involved.

But it's outrageous to take existing and publicly financed, public-access infrastructure and turn it into an ATM for a privately held, for-profit vendor.

How is this any different from granting, say, "Justice Enterprises, Inc." operating control of your local county courthouse -- and giving it the power to hit you up for $5 every time you need to get a legal document filed or want to contest a traffic ticket?

Oh, yeah -- I forget. They already do charge us for contesting traffic tickets.

And countless municipalities all around the country have turned over aspects of traffic enforcement to private, for-profit companies -- taking a cut of the proceeds themselves, of course.

That's bad enough. Big government teaming up with Big Business to make a profit off the enforcement of laws is quite literally the Mother of All Corruption.

But these HOT lanes are even more depraved because there is no longer even a weak attempt at justification based on the punishing of wrongdoing, or at the very least, law-breaking. With a photo radar or red light camera ticket, the argument can be made that, hey, you broke the law -- and thus, the fine.

It's certainly obnoxious to know that part of the fine you get hit with ends up going to help finance braces for the teenaged kid of the CEO of the private company that runs the automated cash machines -- but there's at least some comfort in knowing there's a connection, however tenuous, between your actions and the handing over of your hard-earned money.

But HOT lanes?

All you're guilty of is wanting to use the roads you already paid for without being dunned again for the privilege.

An irony of the situation in Virginia is that it was a Democrat governor, Tim Kaine -- who continues to serve as chairman of the Democratic National Committee -- who was pushing the HOT Lane Hustle. Isn't it supposed to be greedhead Republicans who want to privatize everything -- and turn the entire clunky apparatus of government into a nationwide system for Making People Pay?

Apparently, Democrat pols like Kaine are just as eager to dip their beaks.

Keep it all in mind next time you stop for a fill-up.

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About the Author

Eric Peters is an automotive columnist and author of Automotive Atrocities: The Cars You Love to Hate (Motor Books International) and a new book, Road Hogs.