Road scholarship for Ritter?

(Andrews in Denver Post, May 20) Memo to Gov. Bill Ritter, from the Selection Board: Your application to become a Road Scholar for Colorado is welcomed by our board of taxpayers, businesses, and motorists. Transportation excellence is vital for economic growth, so to succeed politically, you will need a high mark in highways. But you were graded “incomplete” on transportation by House Republican leader Mike May for the legislative semester that ended May 4. Unlike your predecessor, Bill Owens, who had a statewide highway bond on the ballot at this point in his freshman year, you have done no more than form a study panel.

On roads, as on health care, your Colorado Promise has produced only procrastination so far. It’s still early, though, and we believe that with the old Ritter work ethic, you have the potential to be a star of innovation for better roads in our state.

“Think outside the box,” you told the 32-member Transportation Finance and Implementation Panel as they set to work last month toward a November deadline. We hope you meant: get past the antiquated notion that taxes must pay for all roads and government must run them all. Any good Road Scholar in the 21st century knows better.

Gasoline tax and other revenue will meet only $75 billion of a projected $178 billion in Colorado transportation needs out to 2030, your April summit was told. A hundred billion shortfall is real money, even by Democratic standards.

This isn’t a partisan issue, however. You commendably chose Russell George, a Republican from the Western Slope, as your CDOT director. And some of your fellow Democrats, including State Treasurer Cary Kennedy and State Senator Chris Romer, are on record agreeing we must think outside the taxation box toward high-tech tolling.

As leaders in a party that usually favors government solutions, why would they entertain a market approach in this case? Why would Gov. Jon Corzine in New Jersey and Gov. Ed Rendell in Pennsylvania, your Democratic counterparts, be seeking lease operators for their toll roads? Our summer homework assignment to you is to find out.

A toll is really just a user fee, after all. People are accustomed to buying cable and cell service that way, and increasing numbers now buy access to E-470 or the north I-25 HOT lanes through a similar cashless electronic system. If business slumps, private bidders can take over the risk, as recently occurred with the debt-ridden Northwest Parkway.

“Demand-based pricing” is the term Chris Romer prefers to “tolling.” He says it’s the only ultimate answer to overuse of a scarce but free resource. (Think jammed aisles and empty shelves at Safeway, if all the groceries were unpriced.) London and even New York City have lessons for us in managing road congestion with pricing, says the son of former Gov. Roy Romer.

Roy, the father, once famously said he would “roll over and crush” opponents of a highway tax increase; it lost anyway. Chris, the son, shuns such bulldozer rhetoric for a mild academic tone, much like his economist brother, Paul Romer of Stanford.

Paul, who has been mentioned for a Nobel Prize, told REASON magazine in 2001 that embracing freedom and markets is the key to “a much more satisfying and rich human experience.” It may also be the best exit from a gas tax dead-end. In a study just out, REASON’s transportation expert, Robert Poole, pegs toll roads with private concessionaires as this century’s way forward.

Beware the “failure of imagination” that believes all the policy levers have been found, Paul Romer warns in a recent article. 21st century political winners will be those who “more effectively support the production of new ideas in the private sector,” he adds. To progress as a Road Scholar, Governor, take a seminar with the three Romers.