Jan 27 2007

Private power

Published by at 5:06 pm under Oregon

roadcam on I5Toll roads generally are not a good idea; roadways are community assets that should be available to us all, and we should all pay. However did we manage to build the interstate road system without (for the most part, and exclusively in the West) tolls? We did it the old-fashioned way: We raised the money and paid for it. Granting that some of the new road projects being contemplated in the Northwest are likely to be highly expensive, that generally remains the best approach. The best cases we can see for tolls would be bridges – discrete projects – provided that the tolls come off when the project is paid for.

One of the glories of our country has been the easy transportation around it; we have a wonderful ability to come and go as we please, subject only to how much gas we can put in the tank. (That being, we suppose, a related but separate issue.)

Much worse that government toll roads, though, are private ones – which simply should be prohibited in this country. We had private toll rolls in many parts of this country early in our history (many early roads were hacked out that way). But we got rid of them when we could, and we mostly did. No private entity, non-accountable to us, should have power over our ability to get from Point A to Point B, which the private manager of a toll road would.

In Oregon, the big private player in the toll road arena has been an Australian firm, Macquarie Infrastructure – and it is perhaps the largest player in that arena nationally and internationally. With the recent boom in interest in tolling roads (Washington Governor Chris Gregoire has expressed interest in a couple of such projects) its services have been in demand. From Wikipedia: “MIG has a 100% stake in the M6 Toll road in the UK, which was constructed to relieve congestion on the M6 motorway—one of the UK’s busiest motorways. Additionally, as part of a consortium MIG has taken over operations of the Indiana East-West Toll Road and the Chicago Skyway, both part of Interstate 90 in the United States; and by itself has a 100% interest in the Dulles Greenway and the greenfield South Bay Expressway, scheduled to open in mid-2007, also in the United States.” Among others.

Lately, it has developed studies on the feasibility of tolling a road out to a fast-growing part of Clackamas County, and two roads (including Highway 99) in Yamhill County. It has recommended against proceeding with the first, and its stance on the second seems a little ambiguous in that what it has recommended probably is not politically feasible. That feasibility may be blocked for good if two Oregon legislators pass their legislation seeking to block a Highway 99 toll.

Oregon may consider it a bullet dodged. It is a basic tenet of this site that concentrated power should be viewed with suspicion; and in this case, maybe more than that.

In Texas, Macquarie is pursuing several toll projects which have aroused local controversy (some Texans seem to have a problem about foreign companies controlling the roads they drive on). A number of local newspapers have led the battle against it (see the Trans-Texas Corridor news archives). Macquarie’s response has been noteworthy.

Macquarie Infrastructure is part of a larger conglomerate which includes Macquarie Banking (a massive financial organization) and, lately, Macquarie Media, bankrolled by Macquarie Banking. On Wednesday, the Sydney Morning Herald reported that “Macquarie Media Group Ltd has swallowed American Consolidated Media for $102 million and says it has an appetite for more US community newspaper businesses. The Macquarie Bank-backed fund, which already has broadcast assets, is “in a number of discussions” with other US newspaper businesses, including some exclusive negotiations, but declined to offer more details.”

An Austin blogger connects the dots:

The purchase allows one of the largest toll road operators in the world to control some of it’s industries most outspoken critics in Texas, dozens of rural independent Texas newspapers.

The deal could help to clear a political path for potential Texas contracts worth Billions.

The purchase comes after the ACM’s rural independent newspapers have clearly been the most vocal opposition to the Trans Texas Corridor (TTC).

Countless articles over the past months and years peg the TTC as an eminent domain land grab. ACM’s publications had placed serious political pressure on the TTC, therefore future TTC contracts worth an estimated $185 Billion dollars.

Editorial independence is being bought out.

The newspapers are the main communication tool for many of the rural Texan communities, with many citizens at risk of loosing their homes and farms through eminent domain. Future TTC contracts are estimated to effect about one-half million acres of land, and 4,000 miles of Texas toll roads.

Founded in 1998, American Consolidated Media is a privately owned media holding company. Based in Dallas, Texas, the company owns and operates about 40 newspapers, primarily in the small-to-medium markets of Texas.

There’s also this from Land Line, a magazine for independent truckers:

Critics worry that a control of media by companies that own toll roads may lead to a spin of information. Many of the small papers included in the purchase have been critical of the privatization of U.S. highways, according to the Bonham Journal, an affected newspaper that has been particularly critical of the Trans-Texas Corridor.

“The toll roads will be under control of foreign investors, which more than frustrates Texans,” the newspaper reported in November 2006.

Truckers know the Macquarie company name from the toll-road subsidiary called Macquarie Infrastructure Group – which is part of an expanding web of investment groups spun by the parent company, Macquarie Bank.

Also last week, Land Line also reported another bit of news, indicating who’s really calling the shots these days on our transportation future: “President Bush has announced that he intends to appoint an official with toll-road investor Macquarie to be the general counsel of the U.S. Department of Transportation. David James Gribbin, IV, of Virginia is currently the division director for Macquarie Holdings, a Washington, DC, company under the umbrella of the toll-road investor Macquarie Infrastructure Group of Australia. Before that private sector job, Gribbin was chief counsel of the Federal Highway Administration.”

Those who consider societal power an exclusive domain of the government should get a load of this. They might also get hold of the Robert Caro biography (The Power Broker) of Robert Moses, the New Yorker who for decades was the most powerful person in his state though he held no elective office and had no substantial personal wealth. What he did control were toll bridges and roads and other important pieces of the New York infrastructure, and that was enough to make him impervious to assaults by governors and even presidents.

In comparison to what Macquarie, and some others, are trying to do, Moses was a piker.

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