LYON, France -- Driving through the French countryside on the well kept-motorways here, I keep thinking of Mitt Romney.
It's not because of the narrative spun this week at the GOP convention, about how he was in a car crash while a young missionary in France. Although some of the hairpin turns we've taken in our little red Renault from Auto Europe make such an accident quite understandable, the convention in Tampa seems a world away, and I'm here to focus on research for my forthcoming book on Le Corbusier.
What makes me think of Mitt Romney, and by extension his right hand man, Eric Fernstrohm, is tolls.
The major motorways are all toll roads in France, largely built, run and maintained by private companies in public-private partnerships. It's all neat and efficient, and it's costly — close to $23 for the equivalent of driving from New York to Boston. There is also of course a superb high-speed rail network, the TGV, or "train grande vitesse," which is a lot of fun to say, and provides a viable alternative to driving.
The cost of gasoline is also very high here, close to $8 a gallon. Those who chose to drive, say from Lyon to the Cote d'Azur, pay. Most people doing this can afford it. It's a pay-as-you-go system that is France's way of facing up to the reality of the cost of transportation infrastructure, including many Big Dig-like tunnels that sweep under the urban fabric in major cities for many kilometers.
So it was that while feeding a €20 bill into the automated machine on the A-7, I was taken back to my days as a transportation beat reporter for The Boston Globe. Fernstrohm, whom I competed against for scoops when he was a reporter at the Boston Herald, emailed me with a proposition in his role as communications director for then-Governor Romney. You should come to the governor's press conference today on Beacon Hill, he said, and ask him what he thinks of the proposal to restore the toll plaza on the Massachusetts Turnpike in Newton.
Motorists using the Mass Pike pay tolls for all exits, and the tolls had been going up, from 50 cents to $1.25 and more. There was one exit that had no tolls, and the turnpike authority suggested this gap should be tidied up.
I told my editor what I was doing, went to the State House and raised my hand. The governor called on me as he had been instructed to do. What do you think of the proposal to restore this toll plaza, I asked. "Well, that's nuts," Romney replied, as he had been prepared to say. I wrote a short story, and the next day, the Boston Herald ran an editorial about how refreshing it was that a politician could speak off the cuff and from the heart about his passion for lessening the burden on the driving public. I have long since admired Fernstrohm's stagecraft.
Romney was on anti-toll campaign at the time, and the quasi-public, Robert Moses-style turnpike authority was a fat target. Being against tolls is like being against big government and against taxes. That kind of stance resonates for anyone who grumbles about reaching into their pockets at the toll plaza.
But deep down, the businessman side of Romney surely recognizes that tolls, and privatization and public-private partnerships, should at least be part of the conversation of how to address America's crumbling infrastructure and dysfunctional federal transportation system, punctuated some months ago with yet another temporary extension of spending authorization. As governor he began work on a 20-year state transportation plan and instituted "fix it first," requiring money to go first to repairing key infrastructure before any new highways were built.
Nationwide, how should we pay for infrastructure? With an infrastructure bank? With more PPPs? This is to say nothing of increasing the gas tax or putting a price on carbon, as a way of sending signals about the true cost of foreign oil dependence and greenhouse gas emissions, and further inducing efficiency in motor vehicles. Or investing in transit or high-speed rail or encouraging transit-oriented development.
There are any number of opinions about all of this. For starters, I want to be sure the money I pay in tolls goes for operating and maintaining the roadway, and not somewhere else. But an anti-government posture cuts off the discussion before it can start. No self-respecting handler would suggest even bringing up anything like infrastructure, and certainly not that anyone would have to shell out more money for anything. It would be like Walter Mondale, running against Ronald Reagan in 1984, promising that he would raise taxes.
And so I remain in France, paying for doing the things that Americans have been getting, over decades of happy motoring, essentially for free. Somebody pass the freedom fries.