Center for Limited Government Newsletter – February 10, 2011

1.Toll Lanes: An Entrepreneurial Leadership Case Study

By John Merrifield
Adjunct Fellow, The Center for Limited Government

Without entrepreneurial leadership, the political process can produce questionable outcomes. The use of toll lanes next to existing “free” lanes on public freeways is a case in point. Sutherland has no position on this particular issue, but it provides a good illustration of the importance of entrepreneurial leadership, which occurs when elected leaders attempt to change public opinion.

When these projects come on line, rush-hour motorists face a choice between clogged “free” lanes and expensive toll lanes. But what about during the rest of the day? Are motorists going to use the toll lanes before there is significant congestion in the “free” lanes?

For many, the answer is no. This puts significant pressure on those managing the toll-lane system to charge exorbitant prices to stay in the black. For example, on Route 91 east of Los Angeles, drivers pay around $10 to use the toll lanes during rush hours. Alongside, traffic crawls along in the “free” lanes, partly because of that high toll. This is a well-documented occurrence, and I have experienced it myself. If you have a standard workday, you get to choose between a bumper-to-bumper crawl or roughly $20 per day for tolls.

On the other hand, a market-oriented policy alternative is a lower, rush-hour-only toll in all lanes. Then everyone would move, and spend much less on tolls, because people would adapt their behavior accordingly. They would carpool in order to split the tolls, or they would rearrange work to avoid traveling at rush hour, or they would work at home, and the list goes on. Failure to apply tolls to all rush-hour drivers leaves as the only alternative an expensive construction race against increased demand. Example: Atlanta’s IH-75, with 15 lanes going on 23.

A big part of this growing urban-planning problem is the common myth that charging rush-hour tolls on existing roads amounts to paying for the road twice. That is simply false. Toll revenues pay for maintenance and expansion of existing roads – costs that citizens will pay for one way or the other, either through general taxes or through tolls. Failure of elected officials to correct this popular misunderstanding – in other words, the lack of entrepreneurial leadership – is likely to be quite costly.

In other states, proponents of separate toll lanes have begun to realize that the toll lanes will be empty most of the time. They wonder how to pay for the toll lanes with modest, rush-hour-only use, especially at the relatively low toll rates frequently applied. The result has been talk of ways to coerce citizens into the toll lanes, such as lowering speed limits in the “free” lanes. Such “solutions” are just the tip of the iceberg. Further, increasing gasoline prices make investments in toll lanes look even shakier. Since toll lane usage depends on significant congestion in the “free” lanes, small declines in driving due to higher gas prices can have a huge impact on toll-lane usage.

The lesson of the separate toll-lane policy is that entrepreneurial leadership is crucial to the creation of effective, limited-government public policy. It is called entrepreneurial leadership because attempts to reverse public opinion can be politically risky but can also come with a huge payoff. For instance, charging every rush-hour motorist a small toll would have benefits extending beyond reduced congestion and travel times. The benefits would also include savings on fuel and maintenance costs, reduced air pollution, less construction spending and subsequent road disruption, and, for the motorists, more time with family. In short, the benefits are less government intrusion, greater freedom and increased prosperity.

Here’s hoping that Utah’s elected leaders have the political courage to pursue entrepreneurial leadership.

The author, John Merrifield, Ph.D., is a member of the economics faculty at the University of Texas at San Antonio and adjunct fellow of Sutherland Institute’s Center for Limited Government. He also serves as the editor of the Journal of School Choice and director of the E.G. West Institute for Effective Schooling. Dr. Merrifield has written several books, peer-reviewed journal articles, and book chapters in his primary teaching and research fields that include public finance.


2.UHSAA Transfer Rule Burdens Student-Athletes

By Matthew C. Piccolo
Policy Analyst

Choosing where to attend school got harder this school year – for some students.

Under a new rule, student-athletes who transfer to a different high school, even for academic reasons, are forced to give up athletics for a full year. This rule has taken the regulation of high school athletics to a new extreme. A more reasonable rule should replace it – one that recognizes the realities of public schooling in Utah.

In its zeal to stop athletic-related transfers, the Utah High School Activities Association (UHSAA) is throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Many students are now forced to confront a decision they should never have to make: “Do I transfer to a school where my chances of succeeding academically will improve and give up sports for a whole year, or do I stay where I am to keep playing sports?

Some students may not fret about sitting out, but is it fair or just to force students who love athletics and consider them an integral part of their educational experience to sit out, especially when they transfer solely or primarily for academic reasons? Hardly. The UHSAA’s new rule forces students to choose either academics or athletics.

This either-athletics-or-academics proposition defies reality. When people choose a school, they consider not one but many factors: teaching quality, social environment and family circumstances, to name just a few.

In the UHSAA’s view, a high-stakes decision between athletics and all other considerations is supposed to discourage students from putting athletics above academics. In truth, it elevates athletics above academics by making athletics the fulcrum point of the decision, a reality that distorts the decision-making process and promotes precisely what the UHSAA says it is trying to prevent.

How did we arrive at this extreme? Understandably, the UHSAA wanted to change its transfer rule. The old rule was difficult to enforce, created a huge administrative burden, and engendered ill will among the UHSAA, parents and school officials. Keeping the old rule was not an option.

But when the UHSAA rightly decided to change its transfer rule, it went too far. It placed an unnecessary burden on student-athletes, a burden not imposed on any other type of student – not drama students, chess players, debate team members or students struggling with academic issues.

This approach clashes with Utah’s educational philosophy. Recent innovations such as open enrollment, charter schools and online education give students more options to help them tailor their education to their individual needs and goals.

Specifically, open enrollment allows students and their families to adjust to changing circumstances and to find the best educational experience available to them. The UHSAA’s transfer rule discourages the use of open enrollment; in fact, for many student-athletes it effectively renders that option useless.

It’s time to modernize the transfer rule for student-athletes. The current rule is based on an attend-where-you-live, play-where-you-live mentality that is a relic of the past.

Students who transfer under the state’s open-enrollment law should remain eligible to participate in athletics. All students should be free to pursue educational excellence using every opportunity available to them. No other consideration justifies the obstruction of that pursuit.

To read the version of this op-ed that appeared in The Salt Lake Tribune, click here.

To read the Sutherland Institute’s full report contending that the Utah High School Activities Association’s transfer rule unfairly limits open-enrollment options for student-athletes, click on this link:

Open Transfer Rule for Student-Athletes: Six Myths Debunked