A businessman in Maine wants to build a privately financed and managed toll road cutting east-west across Maine, saying it will make the state an important cog in the global economy.
According to The New York Times, the plan is meeting opposition from residents and environmental groups, and has support from many in the business cool unity -- making the debate seem a typical one, similar to what we might see anywhere.
The difference is the private-financing. As the paper notes:
A 2009 report by the United States Public Interest Research Group Education Fund found that some other privately financed toll roads had failed, leaving taxpayers responsible.
The state is paying for a feasibility study -- at a cost of $300,000 -- which would be reimbursed if the road is built, the paper says.
The state is paying for the study because it has an interest in the economics of the project, said Ted Talbot, a spokesman for the Maine Department of Transportation; it is not being done for Mr. Vigue.
“We want to know, if it’s a toll road, how does it become profitable for a private company to operate?” Mr. Talbot said. “Someone has to plow it, police it, maintain it.”
To me, that is the key. When then-Gov. Jon Dorzine proposed his N.J. Turnpike privatization scheme, the big questions on the table were about governance. There was a fear -- which was legitimate -- that drivers would be at the mercy of a private company and that the tolls would jump at the same time that service (upkeep, snow removal, even traffic management and policing) would deteriorate.
Other states have privatized existing roads with mixed results, but the privately constructed and managed road is rare, meaning there are even fewer examples to turn to for context. The fears expressed by the critics of the Corzine plan five years ago seem mild compared to questions raised by this road and the potential precedent it could set. Will the road be affordable to drivers or purely a truck route? Will the vetting process for builfing it be as rigorous as it would be for a public road? What involvement will the public have in the planning and approval of it?
The potential precedent -- i.e., the possibility that private roads could proliferate -- makes it more than a local or purely Maine issue and one to which all of us must pay attention.