NAFTA Highway and Privatization of Roads - Politicians Beware!

Paul  Weyrich
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Posted: May 31, 2007 12:01 AM
NAFTA Highway and Privatization of Roads - Politicians Beware!

One question has always eluded me as I have examined public policy questions these past four decades. That is why when propositions are presented to the public so many people are outraged yet the legislators who approve them have absolutely no clue.

The latest example of this is the Immigration Bill. Both Republicans and Democrats who negotiated it expressed utter shock at the public reaction. When many of us worked on the Panama Canal Treaty, Senators who unexpectedly were defeated in both 1978 and 1980 could not believe the public anger over their votes. I recall the statement of Senator Thomas J. McIntyre (D-NH) when confronted with outrage over his vote for the Panama Treaty. He allowed as how he was elected to use his judgment and he knew better than the voters of New Hampshire. An Allegheny Airlines co-pilot, Gordon J. Humphrey, who never had held office at any level in New Hampshire, became Senator Humphrey in the 1978 election.

I suspect that a number of Senators, especially the Republicans, will not be in the next Congress. Senator Saxby Chambliss (R-GA) had no likely opposition before his work on that Immigration Bill. Now there is talk about finding a first-tier opponent for the November 2008 election.

I mention this because there are two issues on the horizon which are certain to outrage voters but will no doubt confound the legislators which approve of the issues under consideration.

The first is the so-called NAFTA Highway. I am a Commissioner for the major study taking place to make recommendations for fifty years forward on surface transportation. I raised the issue of the NAFTA Highway with the Department of Transportation. I was told, "Not us".

Who then? Why are there states which are looking toward interstate compacts? The idea is to approve of a 12-lane highway, six lanes in each direction, to run from Mexico to Kansas City, then in due course all the way to Canada.

A 12-lane highway built for trucks is bound to raise the ire of the voter. Yet I am willing to wager (although I am not a betting man) that state legislators who might vote for this monstrosity will be absolutely astounded by the negative public reaction. And if some of them are defeated in the process, so more the bewilderment.

Just wait and watch it happen. Meanwhile, there is another issue, again at the state level, which is confounding its proponents. My old friend Mitch Daniels, White House Political Director in the Reagan days, Director of the Office of Management and Budget during the first Bush term and (more relevant to Indiana) Chief of Staff to Senator Richard G. Lugar when Lugar was Mayor of Indianapolis, was elected Governor of Indiana while Bush was being re-elected in 2004.

Daniels made some mistakes but he was reasonably popular. Then Daniels, a good free-enterpriser, proposed to the Republican-controlled Legislature to sell the Indiana Toll Road to the Macquarie Infrastructure Group/Cintra for $3.8 billion.

It appeared to be a good deal for Indiana. The buyer would be required to perform all maintenance. With rising spending requirements for Medicaid, education and other matters, the sale seemed to be, in the words of George Tenant, a slam dunk.

Yet when the sale went through Daniels suddenly appeared to be in big trouble. It is hard to identify why the voters were so angry with Daniels. It appeared to be a vague feeling that having invested the money to build the toll road they thought of it as theirs and didn't want it owned by someone else. Facilities such as the Indiana Toll Road, however, are being sold all over. The Chicago Skyway Toll Road also has been sold. The difference has been that the Chicago sales have not been accompanied by the severe political fallout as was the case in Indiana.

Perhaps voters trust big-city liberals more than they do conservative Republicans with connections to big business. Anyway, the Pocahontas Parkway has been sold for $611 million by the Parkway Association and the Virginia Department of Transportation to Transurban with zero political fallout. Virginia has had back-to-back Democratic Governors.

Despite Daniels' dip in popularity the Indiana Lottery is up for sale with a price tag of from $3 to $5 billion. Perhaps voter attachment to a lottery will be less than it was to a toll road.

Meanwhile, if you ever have had the necessity to drive northerly to New York or New England, you may well have had the opportunity to use the New Jersey Turnpike and perhaps the Garden State Parkway. It along with the Atlantic City Expressway is for sale by the very liberal Governor Jon Corzine of New Jersey. A cool $10 to $49 billion will make you the owner.

The question is why? It appears that such investors find the guaranteed stability of a highway-related facility quite attractive. On the other hand, as voters in Indiana have demonstrated, there could be a political price to pay with the sale.

So far it would appear that there currently are more properties available than there are buyers. So it is not clear how the privatization idea will play out. In any case, legislators who vote in favor of such an idea had better be prepared. In Texas both Houses of the Legislature, controlled by the Republicans, have voted a two-year moratorium in privatizing state toll roads. Do they know something about the feelings of the voters?