Friday, September 28, 2007

Outsourcing takes a toll on U.S. highway projects

Shipping services for Americans overseas is reaching all the way to U.S. highways.

Across the nation, foreign management of toll roads and other infrastructure is raising money for projects that otherwise would not be built.

In Virginia, Australian companies would operate four toll roads in the state when construction is completed on tollways planned for the Washington area.

The foreign companies compete for public-private partnership contracts that state governments increasingly give out to avoid draining their tax revenue on highways.

"In real dollars, there's a lot less dollars available for publicly funded infrastructure than there used to be," said Michael Kulper, vice president of the transportation consortium Fluor-Transurban Inc. and an Australian citizen. "More and more of the state budgets are being consumed by maintenance."

Fluor-Transurban is finishing a deal with Virginia that would build 70 miles of "HOT lanes" along the Capital Beltway's normal traffic lanes and south to Fredericksburg.

For motorists, the HOT — high-occupancy toll — lanes mean they would pay between 10 cents and $1 a mile to bypass Beltway traffic. The rates would vary throughout the day, depending on the density of traffic on the Beltway. Buses and high-occupancy vehicles could use the toll road for free.

Transurban Group is the Australian consortium that would collect the tolls and maintain the roads. Fluor Corp. is an Irving, Texas, engineering and construction company that would build the HOT lanes.