Recent toll road poll proves nothing; private financing of public roads is still a bad idea

traffic jamThe Reason Foundation and the Alliance for Toll-Free Interstates recently traded jabs over a poll that purports to show Americans prefer toll roads as a solution to our declining transportation infrastructure.

Not unexpectedly, the Reason-Rupe Poll  found favor with Reason’s longstanding position advocating toll roads. The Alliance shot back with a press release citing a Rasmussen Report that said two-thirds of Americans oppose a White House plan to toll existing interstates.

I have news for the both of them. Polls may help marketers sell toothpaste and tell politicians which side to part their hair on, but they’re a lousy way to shape policy.

Fact number one is the average American is blithely ignorant of even the basic facts of almost every public policy issue extant. If FDR had followed the polls he would have let Europe fall to the Nazis and Asia to Imperial Japan. If Truman or Eisenhower had governed by polls we likely would have dropped nuclear bombs on China and Russia.

Fact number two: transportation infrastructure and its funding mechanisms are complex issues. Given that most Americans know almost nothing about history, science, finance or current events, one would certainly not expect them to enlighten us with their wisdom when it comes to something only the policy wonks understand.

Last year I watched, dumbfounded, an amazing half-hour of television wherein Fox news put together a panel of talking heads to examine the infrastructure funding crisis. Not a single person on the panel knew the first thing about gas taxes or the relationship between state and federal funding mechanism. But that didn’t stop them from filling a half-hour pretending they did. So if the number one cable news channel in the country can’t bother to do it’s research or learn the facts, are we really to expect that the average man on the street is going to know any better?

As I have written before in this space, the private funding of public infrastructure is a bad idea, a giant money grab by the big banks and politically connected mega-construction companies. Many of these companies are in fact international consortiums, accountable to nobody but their bondholders. And as the defeat by voters of the Trans-Texas Corridor  proved, most citizens of the Lone Star State don’t want to pay money to Spain for the right to use their own roads.

The Reason Foundation purports to be a libertarian think tank, and I have a lot of sympathy for the libertarian point of view. But when it comes to highway funding they’re clearly on the side of the big banks, the crony capitalists and the government entities that would enable the financial world to build our roads for X number of dollars and charge us 3X dollars, or more, to use them.

The current gas tax system of financing most highway construction is a pay-as-you-go system, fiscally sound and sober. P3s are like a zero-down home loan that you never pay off, just continually refinance into the indefinite future until the bill comes due to your children. Is this what libertarians stand for?

No doubt the poll wars will continue. Polls give readers simplistic, easy to understand nuggets of information and in the age of Facebook and Twitter appeal to people’s narcissism.  But policy or governance by polls is posturing, not leadership.

Our 32nd, 33rd and 34th presidents made tough decisions that sometimes ran counter to public opinion—and America and the world are the better for it. They broke the back of fascism, kept the peace and built the interstate highway system. Would only we had that kind of courage and intellectual fortitude in Washington today.

This article was written by Tom Jackson, Executive Editor of Equipment World.