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The Highwaymen

Why you could soon be paying Wall Street investors, Australian bankers, and Spanish builders for the privilege of driving on American roads.

"the road is one succession of dust, ruts, pits, and holes." So wrote Dwight D. Eisenhower, then a young lieutenant colonel, in November 1919, after heading out on a cross-country trip with a convoy of Army vehicles in order to test the viability of the nation's highways in case of a military emergency. To this description of one major road across the west, Eisenhower added reports of impassable mud, unstable sand, and wooden bridges that cracked beneath the weight of the trucks. In Illinois, the convoy "started on dirt roads, and practically no more pavement was encountered until reaching California."

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It took 62 days for the trucks to make the trip from Washington, D.C., to San Francisco, and another 37 years for Ike to complete a quest, inspired by this youthful journey and by his World War II observations of Germany's autobahns, to build a national road system for the United States. In 1956, President Eisenhower signed the Federal-Aid Highway Act, which called for the federal and state governments to build 41,000 miles of high-quality roads across the nation, over rivers and gorges, swamps and deserts, over and through vast mountain ranges, in what would later be called the "greatest public works project in human history." So vital to the public interest did Eisenhower, an old-style fiscal conservative, consider the interstate highway system, he even authorized the federal government to assume 90 percent of the massive cost.

Fifty years to the day after Ike put his pen to the Highway Act, another Republican signed off on another historic highway project. On June 29, 2006, Mitch Daniels, the former Bush administration official turned governor of Indiana, was greeted with a round of applause as he stepped into a conference room packed with reporters and state lawmakers. The last of eight wire transfers had landed in the state's account, making it official: Indiana had received $3.8 billion from a foreign consortium made up of the Spanish construction firm Cintra and the Macquarie Infrastructure Group (mig) of Australia, and in exchange the state would hand over operation of the 157-mile Indiana Toll Road for the next 75 years. The arrangement would yield hundreds of millions of dollars in tax breaks for the consortium, which also received immunity from most local and state taxes in its contract with Indiana. And, of course, the consortium would collect all the tolls, which it was allowed to raise to levels far beyond what Hoosiers had been used to. By one calculation, the Toll Road would generate more than $11 billion over the 75-year life of the contract, a nice return on mig-Cintra's $3.8 billion investment.

The deal to privatize the Toll Road had been almost a year in the making. Proponents celebrated it as a no-pain, all-gain way to off-load maintenance expenses and mobilize new highway-building funds without raising taxes. Opponents lambasted it as a major turn toward handing the nation's common property over to private firms, and at fire-sale prices to boot.

The one thing everyone agreed on was that the Indiana deal was just a prelude to a host of such efforts to come. Across the nation, there is now talk of privatizing everything from the New York Thruway to the Ohio, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey turnpikes, as well as of inviting the private sector to build and operate highways and bridges from Alabama to Alaska. More than 20 states have enacted legislation allowing public-private partnerships, or P3s, to run highways. Robert Poole, the founder of the libertarian Reason Foundation and a longtime privatization advocate, estimates that some $25 billion in public-private highway deals are in the works—a remarkable figure given that as of 1991, the total cost of the interstate highway system was estimated at $128.9 billion.

On the same day the Indiana Toll Road deal closed, another Australian toll road operator, Transurban, paid more than half a billion dollars for a 99-year lease on Virginia's Pocahontas Parkway, and the Texas Transportation Commission green-lighted a $1.3 billion bid by Cintra and construction behemoth Zachry Construction to build and operate a 40-mile toll road out of Austin. Many similar deals are now on the horizon, and mig and Cintra are often part of them. So is Goldman Sachs, the huge Wall Street firm that has played a remarkable role advising states on how to structure privatization deals—even while positioning itself to invest in the toll road market.

Goldman Sachs' role has not been lost on skeptics, who accuse the firm of playing both sides of the fence. "In essence, they're double-dipping," says Todd Spencer, executive vice president of the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association, a truckers' group that opposes toll road privatization. "They're basically in the middle, playing one side against the other, and it's really, really lucrative."

Despite such concerns, the privatization model has the full backing of the Bush administration. Tyler Duvall, the U.S. Department of Transportation's assistant secretary for transportation policy, says dot has raised the idea with "almost every state" government and is working on sample legislation that states can use for such projects. "This is a ground battle in the United States right now," he says. "States just need to be convinced that this is basically something they should be considering."

The financial stakes are potentially huge. "You're buying the infrastructure of the economy, and it's enormously valuable," says John Schmidt, who served as associate attorney general in the Clinton administration and as counsel to the city of Chicago on the $1.8 billion privatization of the Chicago Skyway, the 7.8-mile freeway that connects the Dan Ryan Expressway in the west to the Indiana Toll Road in the east. "[Private road operators] haven't been able to get in here previously. There's been a demand, and it's been bottled up because we just haven't had privatized infrastructure in this country, so they've been buying toll roads in Chile and in France. Now, they suddenly have the opportunity to come into this country."

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