Richmond’s “Road to Nowhere” is about to get yet another owner, showing again how the public-private partnership craze can result in unneeded transportation projects while denying resources elsewhere.
Australia’s Transurban which owns Route 895, otherwise known as “Pocahontas Parkway” is dumping the tollroad it picked up in an emergency financial deal in 2006. At that time, the highway that connects Interstates 95 and 295 southeast of Richmond was so underused that it was about to take down the state’s stellar credit rating.
But Transurban hasn’t been able to make a go of it despite tolls of up to $3.25 per car for a short drive through the fields of eastern Henrico County. The firm plans on selling it to a consortium of European banks that have $300 million in debt. The project also owes the feds $150 million for a loan.
The Pocahontas Parkway was the pioneer project for the Public-Private Partnership Transportation Act of 1995, which has been heralded as a nation-beater and a way to have your cake and eat it too as far as road financing. The allure was that you could build roads and have the private sector manage them and help pay for them through tolls.
Problem was, nobody seems to need the highway. It was billed as a way to expedite I-95 traffic to I-64 and I-95 around Richmond and perhaps open up relatively untapped areas east of the city for suburban sprawl development which hasn’t really happened.
The Richmond Establishment is loath to admit this, but the Richmond airport which has undergone a big expansion is not getting the flights and traffic it had hoped for. The Parkway was supposed to have helped promote the airport by providing easier access to it.
PPPT funding has been replicated in other areas in Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads, but a Portsmouth judge seems to have finally put a legal dagger through the heart of the program by ruling that in the case of a local tunnel project, the state had unconstitutionally given its authority to tax to a private entity.
It isn’t clear what the ruling means for the PPT program, but the gist is clear. Democrats and Republicans alike want to live a fiction that you can transfer the state’s traditional responsibility to raise taxes and build roads and hand it over to private interests. It seems such a sweet arrangement – you get to keep Virginia from having to raise taxes, avoid violating the no-tax dogma and not piss off voters while getting highways and construction jobs. It sounds too good to be true and it is.
Oh well. I wonder who will inherit the White Elephant when the European banks can’t make it work either.