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Privatizing Roads Creating Problems, Study Finds

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The state's shift to privatizing road construction is creating problems, and the state's Public-Private Transportation Act is not living up to its original free-ride billing, suggests a recent study conducted for the liberal-leaning Southern Environmental Law Center, based in Charlottesville.

The act allows the state to contract with private companies to build roads. But after analyzing the 14 projects proposed under the act — so far, metro Richmond's Pocahontas Parkway has been the only project completed — researchers say the law has failed to generate the private investment originally promised. As a result, taxpayers will likely get stuck with the bill.

In the case of state Route 895, for example, toll revenues are falling considerably short of projections just two years after opening to traffic in September 2002. If the numbers don't improve, the bonds may eventually default, forcing the state to pick up the tab.

"Public-private partnerships can be beneficial, but as this report shows, there are serious questions about how effectively the current law serves the public interest," says Trip Pollard, land and community project director for the Southern Environmental Law Center, in a written statement.

The project's head researcher, James J. Regimbal Jr. of Fiscal Analytics in Richmond, writes that the shifting of control away from the state is creating a potentially dangerous pattern. "As a result," he writes, "the PPTA process has accelerated projects of uncertain merit, if one were to look at traffic levels and likely toll revenue (such as Pocahontas Parkway)."

As lawmakers in Richmond debate how to spend a $1 billion surplus — if Gov. Mark Warner gets his wish, much of it would go to transportation projects — the state has stripped most of the money for capital road projects, depending heavily on private money to finance new roads.

Lawmakers and state officials have all but written off the notion of state funding for major roads. At the ribbon-cutting for the still-unfinished Route 288 in Chesterfield, Secretary of Transportation Whitt Clement said toll-free 288 would, under no uncertain terms, be the last of the free roads. "It's simply a luxury we can no longer afford," he said. — Scott Bass

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