The key to success in business is seizing opportunity. Most drivers in Somerset, a quiet, rural county in southwest England, only shook their fists in disgust as they idled in heavy traffic, angry at officials who have been taking their sweet time repairing a sinkhole that disrupts traffic on the road between Bath and Bristol.
The route has been closed to traffic since February, and the health-and-safety obsessed bureaucracy doesn’t expect to get around to finishing the $3.4 million repair job until Christmas, at the earliest. Consultants must consult, analysts must analyze, hearings must be heard, permits must be issued and environmental-impact studies must impact. That takes time.
Motorists have put up with traffic jams as traffic is diverted around the blockade, adding an hour to their journey. But where others saw frustration, Mike Watts saw opportunity. He took an empty field near the broken government road and built his own bypass for $250,000. He will charge commuters $3.40 to take the fastest route to their destination through his field.
The Kelston Toll Road has been a hit with customers and has already been added to Google Maps, which makes it an “official” road for anyone with a smartphone. That irks the Bath & North East Somerset Councils to no end, and they’re trying to shut Mr. Watts down. “A temporary toll road requires Planning Permission,” say prissy bureaucrats, “and no application has been received. In view of public concerns, the Council’s Planning Enforcement team are currently investigating this matter.” The public obviously has no concerns; only the bureaucrats do.
The committee to shut down the toll road won’t file a final mission statement or dispatch the sheriff to shut down the toll road until some time after Christmas, when the main road may reopen. The adversarial relationship between the council and the tolling entrepreneur provides an incentive for the county bureaucrats to finish the repairs quickly.
Toll roads tempt spendthrift politicians, too. Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, a Democrat, wants to turn Interstate 66, a heavily traveled route from the west to the nation’s capital, into a toll road. Last month, Mr. McAuliffe disclosed his plan to “help fix I-66” with “express lanes.” That’s the poll-tested phrase that politicians use to avoid calling the scheme what it is: double taxation through tolls.
Mr. McAuliffe cribbed the scheme from his predecessor, Bob McDonnell, now on trial for corruption, who in turn copied the scheme from Tim Kaine. Big-spending Democrats and Republicans are alike in regarding tolling as a great enabler, collecting great sums of money without “raising taxes.”
The Capital Beltway’s toll lanes have only recently opened, and they’re already a flop. Usage rates are a fraction of what was expected. Opening more toll lanes makes sense only as a reward to campaign contributors.
Virginians are nevertheless stuck with non-compete clauses in contracts between the state and toll-lane operators, meant to hobble traffic on nearby “free” roads by restricting improvements and setting speed limits artificially low. The private tolling companies want the “free” roads to be as inconvenient as possible to protect their revenues. Virginia signed the contracts that give this shakedown the force of law. Such toll lanes only lead from crony to crony, which is just the way the cronies want it.
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