Investors are hoping to seize upon the $1 trillion infrastructure plan proposed by President Donald Trump to transform the nation’s highways, bridges, and tunnels into assets they can monetize by adding tolls and other user fees.
The Trump infrastructure plan, which the administration plans to roll out this week, is centered on the idea of “asset recycling,” which refers to the process of securing new infrastructure spending by leasing the operations of existing public property to private operators.
The privatization-centered scheme has the nation’s largest toll operators salivating. Transurban, Cintra, and TransCore, three major toll operators, have retained federal lobbyists to influence the upcoming plan.
Transurban, which operates Washington-area Beltway tolls, has been accused of price gouging and predatory debt collection practices. In one lawsuit, a driver claimed that she was charged $3,413.75 for unpaid tolls, fees, and fines after Transurban failed to accept her initial payment for $104.15 for missing tolls on the Beltway toll lanes. Washington Post writer Fredrick Kunkle assailed Transurban for “price gouging” after the company hiked its rates to $30 during a winter snowstorm.
During an investor day presentation last month, Transurban’s Jennifer Aument, in charge of North America operations for the Australian company, hailed the Trump infrastructure plan as an opportunity for toll operators like Transurban to expand.
“The people that Trump has put in his administration, they are people who get our business,” Aument said. Trump, Aument added, had appointed several individuals who “were personally involved in working on Transurban’s projects under the Bush administration,” including the Beltway express lane tolls.
At least one prominent Trump official involved in the infrastructure plan has recent financial ties to toll operators. Jeffrey Rosen, the deputy secretary of the Department of Transportation, previously provided legal services to Kapsch TrafficCom North America, according to his ethics disclosure. Kapsch TrafficCom provides tolling technology to several public agencies, including the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.
The concession model has been used in the past to finance infrastructure deals without raising taxes or securing other sources of revenue.
Former Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels negotiated a deal in 2006 to lease a stretch of Indiana highway to a consortium of investors. The money raised from the deal financed construction in other parts of the state, while the investors were promised toll proceeds for 75 years. The Indiana Toll Road went from $4.65 to $8 for a car traveling the length of the highway, with semitrailers now paying double.
The public-private partnership model now favored by Trump administration officials is being spearheaded by White House economic adviser Gary Cohn and Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao. “We like the template of not using taxpayer dollars to give taxpayers wins,” Cohn told reporters on Friday, explaining his preference for the asset-recycling approach.
But many fear that such privatization schemes simply shift the burden from taxpayers to motorists and truckers, while creating a two-tier system that unfairly impairs the ability of low-income drivers from accessing the nation’s interstate highway system. In the process, a small group of investors reap the most rewards.
Cohn and Chao, notably, have ties to the financial firms positioned to exploit the tolling of America’s highways. Cohn is the former chief operating officer of Goldman Sachs and Chao is a former board member to Wells Fargo. Both firms have expressed interest in toll road deals. Though both Cohn and Chao have said they will recuse themselves from matters that directly affect their former companies, it is unclear if they will recuse themselves from private-public infrastructure policies that will attract interest from investment banks.
The rush to embrace a public-private model based on tolling and other private financing methods is seen as a political winner that can bring infrastructure-friendly Democrats together with Republicans concerned about the cost to taxpayers. But the short-term solution based on political expedience may have long-lasting societal impacts.
Alan Pisarski, a travel consultant, noted in a recent column that the fundamental justification for the interstate system was to connect America for military, economic, and social reasons. There was a reason the first 50 years of the national highway system prohibited tolling.
“Where do those people and trucks go if they are priced off the interstate highways by tolling? What national interest can justify that action?” Pisarski asked.