Friday, November 30, 2012

The hucksters are at it again

It was hucksters who leased the Indiana Toll Road to private investors in 2006, and it is hucksters now who are telling the State Budget Committee they need more money.

Indiana Department of Transportation Commissioner Mike Cline plays the role well.

Cline recently told the State Budget Committee that Indiana needs an additional $200 million per year just to meet the maintenance needs for highways and bridges.

But wait. The toll road lease was supposed to be the gift that keeps on giving for the Hoosier State. Governor and chief salesman Mitch Daniels told us that back in 2006 when he traded away the toll road to private investors for a one-time cash infusion of $3.85 billion.

Proceeds were to pay for a 10-year list of transportation projects called Major Moves, and there was supposed to be money left over to help Indiana leverage transportation funding well into the future.

So why is Cline back in front of lawmakers asking for what could amount to a fuel-tax increase or something else to pay for transportation? The Major Moves money is all spoken for, or spent, and we’re only heading into the seventh year of the Indiana Toll Road lease. Have we mentioned that the toll road lease will last another 68 years, until 2081? That’s right.

It’s because of hucksters that the private investors who operate the 157-mile toll road scored a total of 75 years of toll revenue with guaranteed toll increases for the price of a 10-year transportation plan that has all of the money spent or dedicated in just seven years.

Even with these numbers on the table, the pitch men continue to dote all over the lease plan.

Cline himself appeared at a transportation stakeholder conference in Ohio in late October, and even took the podium as a guest speaker. (If you haven’t heard, there are salesmen in Ohio talking up a possible lease of the Ohio Turnpike to private investors.)

“The lease of the Indiana Toll Road in 2006 is good for Indiana, and it’s positioned us for strong economic performance,” Cline told the audience of transportation officials.

“Our toll road is currently being maintained and operated very well by our concession company. And I’ll note that many people that were originally skeptical of the transaction have come around to and acknowledged that, you know, this was a good deal for Indiana.” (Ohio Public Radio, WKSU 89.7 captured audio clips of the speech).

Only one month has passed since Cline said those words, yet here he is on bended knee asking his own state budget panel for more money.

These things happen when we listen to the pitch men, even if the state could use more money for transportation. Who couldn’t use more money right now?

Bottom line is, the public deserves more oversight and more accountability – not less – when dealing with crucial issues such as transferring public assets over to the private sector.

Cline has had the audacity to call it a “myth” that tolls have doubled on the Indiana Toll Road during the first five years of the lease, but the numbers do not lie.

The $14 truck toll prior to the 2006 lease is now up over $32. That’s more than double. Cash tolls for motorists have also doubled from $4.65 to $9.40. The only tolls that haven’t doubled are for those paying electronically with a transponder.

But this is what you get when you let hucksters do the math.

Ohio, be on your guard.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Sitting ducks?

Government-funded programs are being created to help military personnel and veterans make a transition to the civilian workforce by putting them in trucking jobs. Now DOT is partnering with the Department of Veterans Affairs with a new trucking job placement center. These initiatives are commendable. It can even be argued that maybe it’s a little overdue.

I believe with all my heart and soul that, generally speaking, society is failing our vets. There isn’t nearly enough being done to help them heal from their wounds from war, both mentally and physically. And given the unemployment rates, especially among vets, the job market is clearly not doing its part.

That’s why it’s very hard to look past the noble intent of the DOT’s program. But knowing the predatory nature of the underbelly of the trucking industry, the DOT cannot blindly hand out money and pat themselves on the back. Any program like this must have some safeguards built in for our veterans.

They do not need to come home and go through the industry’s tried-and-true practice of a bait and switch. They don’t need to attend a two-day training program with a promise of a job – only to be told at the end of it that there aren’t any left. But, there is a lease-purchase program we can sign you to. One where you have no equity in the truck, and the company controls your income and time on the road (i.e., away from home). It’s a program where the company gains everything and you lose everything.

That’s just one example of how the shysters in the trucking industry will take advantage of our veterans. They do it on a daily basis to average men and women. There’s nothing stopping them. Why would they grow a conscience overnight and retool those lease purchases for vets? There’s no incentive to change.

We would be insane to send our troops into battle untrained and unarmed.

Yet, without any accountability on the part of the motor carriers who will hire them and without any legitimate training standards, we put our vets at risk of being sitting ducks by leaving them untrained and unarmed against the predators ready to capitalize on this back-to-work program.