Why sell toll roads to foreign companies?

Commentary about business and finance.
March 29 2006 4:56 PM

Lost Highway

The foolish plan to sell American toll roads to foreign companies.

For rent: U.S. toll booths
For rent: U.S. toll booths

If a governor told you there were a way to spread pork, raise funds for infrastructure investment, promote jobs, avoid raising taxes, and put a dent in the trade deficit—all in one fell swoop—you might think he had a bridge to sell you. And you'd be right. Only in this case, it's a toll road. And instead of a sale, how about a long-term lease?

Earlier this month, in a triumph for Gov. Mitch Daniels, Indiana's House narrowly approved his proposal to lease the 157-mile Indiana Toll Road, which spans the northern part of the state, for $3.85 billion to a joint venture of Cintra, a Spanish company, and Australia's Macquarie Bank. The two companies have been active in the U.S. road business. In 2004, the two inked a 99-year lease for the 7.8-mile elevated Chicago Skyway. Last year, Macquarie completed its acquisition of the Dulles Greenway outside Washington, D.C. And Cintra, which manages toll roads in Europe and the Americas, is a strategic partner to the Texas state government in the planned Trans-Texas Corridor. There are likely more such deals to come.

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For Daniels—who failed to live up to his nickname ("The Blade") when he served as director of the Office of Management and Budget in the first Bush administration—the 75-year lease is an elegant solution. The state needs billions of dollars to invest in new roads. Getting the cash upfront will allow Daniels to speed up construction on needed infrastructure projects, create new jobs, and fund his Clintonian Major Moves initiative. (Here's a list of projects to be funded and a fact sheet on the deal.) And by raising the cash from foreigners, he's doing his part to rein in the pernicious current-account deficit. "Too often in Indiana, we see Hoosier dollars and jobs leaving the state. Major Moves is an exciting opportunity to recapture U.S. dollars by attracting foreign investment, and use them to create jobs for Hoosiers," he said.

What's in it for the foreign companies? Huge potential profits. Gigantic, steady profits. Toll roads are an incredible asset class. They're often monopolies. They can support debt, since they provide a recurring guaranteed revenue stream that is likely to rise over time, as more people take to the roads and tolls increase. According to Cintra, the Indiana Toll Road generated $96 million in revenues in 2005, and Cintra expects a 12.5 percent internal rate of return on its investment. The heavy lifting has already been done: The state or federal governments have acquired the land and rights of way, built the roads and maintained them for years, and enacted toll increases. All the private companies have to do is deliver cash upfront, maintain the roads, and collect the windfall. The buyers can also increase their profits by making toll roads run more efficiently with technology. After assuming control of the Chicago Skyway, the Cintra-Macquarie consortium installed electronic toll equipment on some lanes. And by refinancing nimbly, companies can cash out. Last year—just seven months into its 99-year lease—Cintra announced that it had recovered 44 percent of its initial investment in the Chicago road through refinancing.

(So, why aren't American companies buying up our toll roads? Here's a theory.)

This easy money for foreigners makes the locals uneasy. In mid-March, the Indiana House approved the deal by a surprisingly slim margin. The Indiana scheme continues to engender local opposition. Last week, while participating in a panel discussion in South Bend, Ind., I got the sense that the toll lease made Hoosiers uneasy for reasons they couldn't quite articulate. It's not like the buyers could uproot the concrete and move it to Queensland, Australia, or Seville, Spain. The 400-page contract spells out in detail obligations of the consortium to invest in maintenance and safety and to keep a lid on toll rates. And unlike the Dubai ports case, it's hard to see how management of the toll road by a foreign entity could raise security threats.

I think the uneasiness has more to do with what it says about the peculiar fiscal climate in the United States. How is it that in the richest nation on the earth, localities simply don't have the cash to do necessary maintenance on basic infrastructure, the political will to raise such funds, or the competence to run such easily profitable operations? Why are they being forced to sell off long-term cash cows for short-term cash?

Leasing or selling a public asset is a classic one-shot—a short-term measure that bolsters the balance sheet today but that can't be repeated. While politicians like Daniels focus on getting through the next few fiscal years with minimum pain, foreign companies are thinking about how to get rich off of tolls for the next three-quarters of a century. From Gov. Daniels to his former boss, President Bush, there's a troubling unwillingness to align governmental resources with the express goals and responsibilities of government. At the federal level, we rely on China's central bank to buy our bonds and fund basic operations. As a result, our tax revenues wind up in Beijing—as interest payments. At the state level, Indiana is relying on foreign companies to lease public infrastructure like toll roads. And under these arrangements, tolls—taxes people pay for driving—are being paid to foreign shareholders of foreign companies.

Of course, by selling public infrastructure at high prices, state governments could be taking foreigners for a ride. The Japanese famously overpaid for Rockefeller Center, after all. It's possible that Indiana just ripped off the Spaniards and Aussies. But I doubt it.

Daniel Gross is a longtime Slate contributor. His most recent book is Better, Stronger, Faster. Follow him on Twitter.

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