March 17, 2008 8:30 AM, EDT

DOT’s Road-Privatization Policy Draws Criticism

Larry Smith/Trans Pixs

The Department of Transportation’s plan to privatize many public roadways by using more tolls has come under intense criticism by those who believe the federal highway system was set up to be paid for by taxpayers, the Washington Post reported Monday.

In a front-page article, the Post said DOT was given authority last year to spend about $1 billion as it saw fit — and DOT used it to seed projects in several major metropolitan areas for “congestion pricing” projects, including in New York City, Seattle, Minneapolis, Miami and Seattle, the Post reported.

Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.), chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure highways and transit subcommittee, said the United States long ago determined that roads are public goods, the paper reported.

And in addition to coming under fire from Democrats, criticism of DOT has crossed party lines. Rep. John Mica (Fla.), the ranking Republican on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, told the paper that DOT’s plan was “myopic” and that while pricing transportation to try to reduce traffic may make market sense, it harms the public.

Mica and other critics do not oppose all tolling, but argue that the federal gasoline tax, which has not been raised since 1993, must be increased so that the federal Highway Trust Fund does not run out of money in three years, the Post said.

Even if the next administration reverses its policies, the Bush administration will leave a legacy of new toll roads across the country, and a growing number of public roads leased to private companies, the Post said.

A report issued last month by the Government Accountability Office warned that tolls on privatized roads are typically higher than if the roads remain under public control, because of the need to generate steady profits for private investors, and that the federal government needs to better protect the public interest, the Post reported.