This is the final piece in a three-part series about privately-financed roads. In the first two parts of this series, we looked at the Indiana Toll Road as an example of the growth in privately financed highways, and how financial firms can turn these assets into profits, even if the road itself is a big money loser. In this piece, we examine the shaky assumptions that toll road investments are based on, and how that is putting the public at risk.
For privately financed toll road deals, traffic projections are critical. These forecasts tell investors how much revenue a road will generate, and thus whether they should buy a stake in it, and what price to pay. While traffic projections have underpinned the rapid growth in privately financed highways, the forecasts have a dismal track record, consistently overstating the number of drivers who will pay to use a road.
Private toll roads have been sold to the public as a surefire something-for-nothing bargain — new infrastructure with no taxes — but it turns out that the risk for taxpayers is actually substantial. The firms performing traffic projections have strong incentives to inflate the numbers. And the new breed of private finance deals are structured so that when the forecasts turn out wrong, the public incurs major losses.
Given the large sums of money involved, even small errors in traffic projections can result in huge problems down the line — and, as Streetsblog has reported, traffic projections everywhere have tended to be wildly off-target. A whole financing scheme, meant to last for generations, can easily be sunk in just a few years by exaggerated traffic projections. The Indiana Toll Road, purchased in 2006 for $3.8 billion, is a great example. The firm that owned it, ITR Concession Co. LLC, declared bankruptcy in September.
Wilbur Smith Associates had predicted that traffic volumes on the Indiana Toll Road would increase at a rate of 22 percent over the first seven years. Instead, traffic volumes shrank 11 percent in the first eight. The result was financial disaster for the concession company, owned jointly by Australian firm Macquarie and Spanish firm Ferrovial. By the time they filed for Chapter 11, debt on the road had ballooned to $5.8 billion.
The company blamed the recession for putting a damper on truck traffic. The same story was offered on another bankrupt Macquarie-owned project, San Diego’s South Bay Expressway. But is that explanation sufficient?
UK-based consultant Robert Bain literally wrote the book on traffic projections, warning in 2009 against forecasters who blamed faulty predictions on the economy [PDF]. Commenting on the flurry of global toll highway bankruptcies that was just starting then, Bain said they had “less to do with the present economic climate, and more to do with a market readiness to be seduced by hopelessly optimistic traffic and revenue projections.”
Bain went on to list 21 ways in which forecasters systematically overestimate future traffic. Each one may tilt the forecast by a tiny amount, but cumulatively they result in significant errors. Some of the typical mistakes indicate that forecasters have not yet acknowledged the broader decline in driving and sprawl underway, while others “underestimate the reluctance of some to paying tolls.” Bain argued for a paradigm shift in the use of traffic projections, recognizing that many of them “resemble statements of advocacy rather than unbiased predictions.”
Phineas Baxandall, a senior researcher with the U.S. Public Interest Research Group who’s written extensively for Streetsblog on trends in driving, says the engineering firms that provide the figures know how things work. “Companies seeking investment for privatized toll roads shop for the forecasting they want,” he said. “[There's] no incentive to tell bad news. And if the deal appears promising, then the forecasting company gets other opportunities to sell further analysis, legal advice, raising debt, selling equity, etc.”