Let the Private Sector Operate the Toll Road
|By Patrick M. Barkey
February 3, 2006
Watching the tug and pull of partisan politics in full bloom in our state capital brings to mind that old saying about making laws and making sausage. You donít really want to see how either one is made. But as our elected leaders posture and fight over the table scraps of new revenue that can realistically be said to be squeezed out of what has historically been an overcommitted state budget, another, more hopeful, vision comes to mind.
Itís a vision of a break, a time-out, for introspection and evaluation. We spend an awful lot of money in the public sector, after all. Shouldnít we pause from time to time, put everything on the table and ask what is it that our governments do well, and what is it that they do poorly? And are there things that can be publicly supported, instead of publicly operated?
Itís not about ideology, itís about performance. In the public realm, there are constraints on behavior that donít exist in the private sector, and vice versa. Contrast, for example, the reaction to the recent announcement of the closings of several Osco Drug stores throughout the state with what occurred in the aftermath of the announcement of closing state-run Bureau of Motor Vehicles offices. Is it any wonder that the private sector is more efficient?
The private sector is ultimately, of course, a more selfish environment as well. Its concern for the bottom line does not bode well for such socially important concepts as universality, equality or even compassion. And, of course, governments give us laws and protections that no society can live without.
But can governments run toll roads? Of course, they can, and they do, almost everywhere around the country you look. But the $3.85 billion bid for operations of the Indiana Toll Road by the same Spanish-Australian consortium that recently assumed operations of the Chicago Skyway is pretty solid proof that the private sector can do it better.
Over the term of its 75 year lease, that bid is a bet that the company can carry out capital improvements, operate the road, and make what is essentially a $200 million dollar annual mortgage payment, and still make a profit for its shareholders. How can it do that?
In a word, service. Sure, private sector operations of the Toll Road will raise rates, but like any business, it canít afford to scare its customers away. So you can expect the company to carry out the kind of improvements that will make usage of the road go up, not down.
Donít like stopping every few miles to dig into your pockets for money? You donít have to. Technology for automatically assessing tolls without slowing from highway speeds Ė with monthly payment by mail Ė has existed for years, but donít count on the public sector to provide it. But a private sector company, that needs to increase ridership to make a profit, can and will do that. Because it has to, to earn a return on its investment.
The highly publicized feeding frenzy over the distribution of the proceeds of the lease misses this point. Yes, we need more money to build roads, and leasing the toll roadówhatever its risksóaccomplishes this aim. But we also need our publicly run enterprises to be efficient, innovative, and customer-oriented. And if that can be accomplished best by letting the private sector take the helm, then thatís exactly what we should be doing.
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