Thursday, February 21, 2008

N.J. toll increases will only shift debt

New Jersey Gov. Jon Corzine recently released a draft of his plan to increase tolls on the state’s three major toll roads to refinance other forms of state debt. It will require legislative approval to proceed.

Corzine intends to increase tolls by 50 percent every four years from 2010 to 2022 on the New Jersey Turnpike, Garden State Parkway, and Atlantic City Expressway.

What people need to know is that the state debts incurred over the years are not necessarily related to transportation, yet Corzine intends to use toll revenue to pay them off.

With other states looking on, Corzine is saying that it is okay to run up state debts as long as the state has toll roads to pawn.

This is an inherently unwise policy, in my opinion, because it shifts more debt to transportation and trucking.

Regardless of how the state got into this mess, implementing a massive tax increase is not the answer. Tolls are taxes.

Highway user groups, including the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association, strongly believe that revenue generated through tolls needs to be spent on transportation and not other things.

Responsible spending in the first place would have kept New Jersey out of the situation, but unfortunately that hasn’t been the practice.

As far as answers go, there aren’t any easy ones. Many voters and lawmakers oppose other types of tax increases, including increases to fuel taxes.

For truckers, a tax increase is a tax increase, except that New Jersey’s proposed 800-percent toll increase doesn’t do much for transportation.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Blacklist

In the fall, National Public Radio aired an official guide to the U.S. blacklists. It pointed out that nearly 100 years ago, President Woodrow Wilson described embargoes as a “peaceful, silent, deadly remedy.” He was talking about economic sanctions as a foreign policy tool.

Blacklisting is still used by our government as a tool to suppress or make people stop what they are doing.

The government has not only blacklisted individuals, companies and organizations, but selected scientific work and critical studies. It’s tried to take away the voice of unfriendly entities, balking academics, statesmen with differing opinions and the most gutsy of the media.

One agency, our Department of Transportation, has taken that tool to new heights of usefulness.

I believe that most trucking journalists first looked at the rumored scale of this developing blacklist with cynicism, as if it was another conspiracy theory. I know I did at first. After all, being able to disapprove of various government regs or actions openly without punishment is what America is all about. In fact, as the regulators, departments like the DOT can fully expect to be criticized.

But journalists who ask hard questions get booted from press events, erased from call-back lists, and banished from press release lists.

This is because first-rate journalism is good for the citizenry, but isn’t always good for the government, or big business, or a government with a big business ideology. The “truthiness” of thunderous journalism scares government. When good investigative journalism discovers something “rotten in Denmark,” citizens are prompted to demand accountability.

Under a “my way or the highway” government, advocacy journalists suffer for publishing dissenting views. By advocacy journalists, I mean journalists who give voice to a segment of people whose views are mostly ignored by the mainstream media. This, in its own way, is even more frightening, as the right for citizens and their associations to speak out is the fabric of our democracy.

So, to cut to the chase: There’s a price to pay for speaking out these days, no matter if you are journalists, truckers, or famous entertainers like the Dixie Chicks. In January, a couple of New Jersey citizens showed up at a town hall meeting with flyers opposing higher toll hikes. They were arrested. Let that last one soak in a moment.

Since August of 2007, OOIDA media (Land Line Magazine and “Land Line Now” on XM radio) have been on the blacklist. Our honest and passionate criticism of the president’s Mexican cross border pilot program placed us crossways with the administration and had us blackballed by public affairs officials within the U.S. Department of Transportation.

They began by abruptly terminating all communication with us, refusing to talk to any reporters or editors of OOIDA media. As managing editor of Land Line Magazine, I appealed to the Director of Public Affairs for the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, an administration appointee. She refused to even provide a reply and continued to blow off phone calls and emails. I appealed to her superior, the head of Public Affairs for the Department of Transportation, but he also chose to completely ignore my request.

I have covered this industry for 20 years and have enjoyed excellent professional relationships with the DOT and its agencies, despite the fact that our coverage often involves criticism of their policies. Direct communication with the DOT is an important part of providing the trucking industry with all pertinent news emanating from its regulating agency.

So I went higher. I made an official request to Secretary of Transportation Mary Peters, asking that she restore communications so we could continue to effectively report on important issues – issues such as driver training and hours-of-service rulemakings. Secretary Peters responded to my official request the same as the others, with not even an acknowledgment of that formal request.

We made several members of the U.S. Congress aware of the situation. I was told by at least one that he would help. But Mary Peters’ DOT cares not a fig what lawmakers want. That was clear when our nation’s legislators cut off funding for the Mexican cross border program, and the DOT swiftly made the decision to ignore the intent of the U.S. Congress and continue the program.

The way I remember learning it, James Madison – our fourth president and a man often called “the father of the Constitution” – said more than 200 years ago that the right to levy honest criticism of public characters and measures is at the heart of American freedom.

So, if our forefathers incorporated such freedoms into our rights as citizens, how is it that we have a government whose policy goes back to colonial days? Back to the days where colonial governors controlled newsletters as long as they served as mouthpieces for the king, as long as they did not challenge the rules?

What do you do when your government’s policy is to suppress information from the people? The answer is to work even harder to find answers to hard questions, to report the truth, to shine the light into dark corners.

Throughout the remaining months, OOIDA will continue to use all of its sources to get the best information we can, print it, broadcast it, and share it with others. We hope that the next administration, whatever and whoever it is, does not adopt the now-established policy where dissenters should not have a voice. This policy cannot be a template for a democratic future.

There’s more at stake here than a blacklist.