Bridge legislation takes a wrong turn on tolls

Posted on June 9th, 2010 Admin

In response to the editorial last Sunday, “Take down the barriers to building a new bridge”: Politicians are often criticized for not reading bills, but after being called a “shill” by the Free Press, I think that criticism may also apply to the media.

The editorial is correct that not a single Republican voted for HB 4961, the bill MDOT wrote to authorize the Detroit River International Crossing bridge. However, our votes were not simply against DRIC, but because we did read the bill and rightly concluded HB 4961 is simply about MDOT finding a creative way to take away current legislative authority for approving tolling throughout our state.

The bill would hand sweeping new powers to MDOT to allow it to impose fees directly on taxpayers with no other checks and balances, via a new mechanism known as a public-private partnership, or P3.

In general, P3s work like this: The government leases a public asset, like a road, to a private company. The state gets a large upfront payment, and the private company gets to charge tolls to try to recoup that money and make a profit.

These projects have had mixed results and mixed acceptance. Once very popular in Texas, public backlash has resulted in a halt to P3 use. A recent bankruptcy of a California P3 cost the federal government $170 million.

Whether tolling is done by MDOT or a private contractor, taxpayers want someone who has been elected by the people to determine where to use them. In cases where tolling for profit is being done by a private contractor, you want to keep accountability even more stringent.

HB 4961 allows for ownership to go to a new tolling authority that would become an “instrumentality of government,” which, according to the bill, could include public bodies from not just Michigan but also other states, other countries and even certain Canadian corporations. If toll rates go through the roof, to whom are taxpayers to go? The Legislature will be powerless.

Keep in mind that this bill would not only authorize the DRIC, but “any new or existing domestic or international highway, lane, road, bridge, tunnel, overpass, ramp, interchange, ferry, airport, vehicle parking facility, vehicle transportation facility, port facility, locks facility, rail facility, intermodal or other public transit facility.”

Given the strong importance of private property rights, we want more clarity on when the bill could allow for the taking of private property from one owner to be turned over and given to the profit of another.

Regardless of the Free Press support for the DRIC, authorizing it through a bill like HB 4961 is the wrong way to go.

Paul Opsommer

State representative, 93rd District, DeWitt



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