June 2, 2010
In response to a bill recently passed out of the House that would allow for the governments of other states and countries to partially control transportation projects in MI, State Rep. Paul Opsommer (R-DeWitt) announced today that he would be offering a ballot proposal that would ensure only Michigan entities would control Michigan’s toll roads or bridges.
The bill, HB 4961, was passed out of the House last week to ostensibly allow Michigan to build a new bridge with Canada known as the DRIC. The actual language goes well beyond that according to Opsommer.
“When you read the fine print, HB 4961 allows for the ownership of virtually all Michigan infrastructure to be contracted out by MDOT over to new mix-government authorities, even if they included so called “instrumentalities of government” from other states or other countries”, said Opsommer. The process would not require legislative approval, and the mixed authorities would be created by MDOT. “What that means is that the governance of things like our roads and bridges could be contracted out in a way where both unelected officials and people from outside our state would have a formal say in who can use our roads, how they will be tolled, and where eminent domain might be used.”
Opsommer has a bill being drafted that would define “instrumentalities of government” as used in Michigan law to mean only those public bodies completely within the state. The bill would also be specific to address HB 4961 to limit tolling projects done through third parties called “public-private partnerships”, restricting how the contracts could be used by lawyers to deny people from using roads and bridges through clauses inserted in long term contracts.
“HB 4961 is full of loopholes that are not in the public’s best interests”, said Opsommer. “For example, the bill says that the public can’t be denied the use of contracted infrastructure, but then says EXCEPT as necessary ‘to regulate the level or character of permissible uses.’ That could mean anything. The bill then says that the contract can not exceed 50 years UNLESS it needs to be longer in order to be feasible ‘as determined’ by MDOT. Toll increases are not supposed to exceed the rate of inflation WITHOUT ‘written approval’ by MDOT. The way this version of the bill is written, every public protection would seem to have an escape clause.”
Opsommer said that in addition to sovereignty concerns from outside of the state the ballot proposal would also protect local governments from so called ‘non-compete clauses’ and ‘non-compete penalties’ that are sometimes inserted into the contracts. “In other states we have seen other public projects threatened to cease and desist if the contractor feels they compete with their toll roads,” said Opsommer.
In other cases the public is not prohibited from expanding their own roads but has to pay a financial penalty first. At their worse, there was a case in Colorado where a local road was slowed down to 40 MPH and new traffic lights were installed in order to intentionally discourage drivers from seeking alternate routes to the private toll roads.
“If you do this wrong, you really run the chance of creating government sanctioned monopolies for parties who think they have us over a barrel,” said Opsommer. “But our fiscal crisis is no excuse for the legislature to willingly cede our tolling authority over to other governments, and I feel strongly that the public will back me up on that at the ballot box. If it is too late for such a proposal this year, I promise I will come back with it next year if HB 4961 in its current version is signed into law.”
Opsommer has already introduced the related HJR FFF and HB 6230, and anticipates the new ballot proposal to be finished with drafting by the end of the month.
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