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Constituent Service Gone Wild

Toll Road pay upFootball fans everywhere are indebted to Virginia Delegate Joe May (R–Leesburg) whose invention of the electronic first down marker added much needed precision to watching the game on TV. Unfortunately, May’s understanding of the free market is much less precise and is in danger of throwing taxpayers for a significant loss.

According to Liz Essley in a series of stories from Washington Examiner, May wants the state to buy the privately–owned, 14–mile–long Greenway toll road located west of Washington Dulles Airport. He is joined by Randy Minchew (R–Leesburg) and David Ramadan (R–Prince William), who also confuse the role of constituent service in conservative governing philosophy. It’s a troika of Republicans who should know better.

May wants the Commonwealth to issue hundreds of millions of dollars worth of bonds to buy the Greenway from the Macquarie Group. Joe contends this would be good news for commuters because he believes the state will be reluctant to raise the tolls, which is not been the case with private ownership where peak period tolls can run as high as $5.80.

And why not? The government body that runs the Dulles Toll Road doesn’t even bother to bill 90 percent of the drivers who use their pavement but refuse to pay. Let them annex the Greenway and commuter’s troubles are over, as the taxpayer’s are just beginning.

Plus everyone knows overall operations for a government–run toll road will be so much more efficient than in the free market. Just look at the pioneering work done at Metro. During the past twenty years the Metro bureaucracy has discovered that escalators installed outdoors without protection from the elements have a tendency to break down and need replacement. Metro’s study of the effects of failing to conduct even routine maintenance on subway infrastructure led to the discovery that the system will become unreliable and subject to unpredictable shutdowns and track work that will consume most of the coming decade.

And don’t overlook the Smithsonian parking lot where attendants stole over $1 million in parking fees with management none the wiser.

And of course government involvement means low prices, which is why the IRS estimates the lowest priced insurance policy under Obamacare will cost a family of five $20,000 a year. If you want a policy that lets you see an actual doctor, as opposed to a Jiffy Lube professional, that will cost extra.

So what could go wrong with Virginia buying the Greenway? If it becomes too expensive to operate without raising the toll, they can just shut it down on Saturday, like the Post Office wants to do with mail delivery.

Del. Minchew echoes May, “I really want to protect our citizens from having tolls reach higher amounts than they should,” he explained.

And Ramadan wanted to try something called “distance–based tolling,” but says Macquarie was not interested.

And there it stands, constituents complain about the price they pay to speed their commute and they want government to “do something!” Followed to its logical conclusion, this type of activist, meddlesome thinking regarding the role of government lead us to the door of Nancy Pelosi’s office. Conservatives do not rush to meddle in a situation the market is uniquely qualified to handle.

The Greenway has been a troubled project from its inception with wildly inflated traffic estimates justifying too much spending. Fortunately, government wasn’t involved, so the first set of owners took a financial bath on the project and sold the tub, ring and all, to Macquarie.

The cost to taxpayers was zero.

Average daily trips on the Greenway peaked in 2005 with a bit over 61,000 with the average toll was just over $2.00. Proving the economic demand curve is alive and well and living in Virginia, as the price for tolls has gone up, traffic volume has gone down. Until in 2012 average daily trips are about 46,500 and the average toll is $3.93.

Yet with traffic down 24 percent, Greenway management was still able to increase average daily revenue by almost $61,000. So the toll is obviously not too high. Otherwise market forces would mean fewer drivers AND less money. Now the price is obviously too high for at least 14,500 drivers because they are now taking another road to work.

And that’s how the market operates; consumers balance cost and benefit and make their choice. Democrats and confused Republicans run to government and plead with them to intervene.

I wonder if any of the esteemed troika members has priced a rib roast at Wegmans lately? Driving on the Greenway is mere transportation, but eating is life itself.

I haven’t had a rib roast in the last year, because they are too expensive and the Philistines at my house can’t tell the difference from a pot roast anyway. But if the state buys the Greenway, I may start talking about the cattle cartel at the next town meeting.

And what makes those particular Greenway drivers so special? How about, God help them, Metro riders? Or Virginia Railway Express passengers? Everybody has a gripe about something.

Del. May is “optimistic we’re going to find a deal that works for both sides” and believes buying the Greenway could cost Virginia nearly $1 billion (which is $21,500 per current trip or 14 years worth of toll charges), making the road green in more ways than one. Hard–bargain Joe’s $1 billion is an interesting figure, because according to TollRoads News the owners carry the Greenway on their books as a net liability of $490 million dollars, meaning the road is worth almost half a billion dollars less than it cost.

As the reporter points out, Macquarie could PAY Virginia $450 million to take the road off its hands and have the books come out $40 million to the good.

It’s time to throw the challenge flag in front of Del. May. Having the Commonwealth buy the Greenway is a bad idea, bad economics and profoundly anti–conservative. In this case what’s private sector should stay private sector.

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Comments (3)

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  1. Jan Brown says:

    hmmm, besides that, our government really needs to find something domestic to spend more money on…”IT” just keeps coming….We’re in a lifeboat with holes now & band aides just won’t work. I imagine that Greenway Mngt paid taxes on that revenue as well. Might even created a job or two.