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The Highways of the Future -- Or Not

Please join me today for a Live Online discussion of transportation topics at 1 p.m. The future of our roads and transit systems have been in the news lately and an election is coming up that could affect the destiny of some transportation projects, particularly in Maryland.

With governments so reluctant to raise more money for transportation projects, many are looking to various forms of public-private partnerships to build roads and even transit systems. In Maryland, Gov. Robert Ehrlich's administration recently put out a call for new proposals along those lines.

But in today's Post, Eric Weiss shows that this approach may have some real difficulties. See his story headlined "Beltway Toll Plan May Need Va. Funds" to see that the plan to have a private company build express toll lanes on the Capital Beltway in exchange for some of the toll revenue -- one of the major congestion-relief projects in the Washington suburbs -- may require a public investment of at least $100 million.

That means Virginians get stuck two ways: They pay a lot of money to build the road, and then the pay a variable toll to compensate the private company for its share of the investment. Some deal.

It's likely that the public-private partnerships are part of the future of highway building across the nation and particularly in the heavily congested Washington region. But the concept so eagerly embraced by the region's government leaders has limits that will become clearer over the next few years.

For one thing, the companies are proposing these ideas because they want to make money. While that's the American way, it's not necessarily the way to solve many of the congestion problems that travelers around here are experiencing. If the idea works at all, it will work on a few highways. And even in those cases, political questions will arise: Just how much tolling are taxpaying motorists willing to tolerate?

By Robert Thomson  |  October 23, 2006; 9:11 AM ET
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