All Commentary
Tuesday, June 29, 2010

The Private Road to Freedom

Private Initiative Should Satisfy Americans' Driving Needs

There is not a state in the union that does not struggle from year to year to build and maintain roads in something resembling an efficient, timely, or competent fashion. State legislatures and city governments raise only a chuckle from their constituents when suggesting that this time, this budget, they will get it right. In the meantime, private alternatives to the current bureaucratic nightmare that defines most transportation infrastructures are ignored.

The idea of privately owned, for-profit roads is one of the most revolutionary ever put forward by advocates of limited government. Nevertheless, it should not be dismissed as a mere Utopian musing. Decades of government control of roads have led many to throw their hands up in despair and resign themselves to constant frustration with civic leaders. The time is ripe to introduce new arguments on this front.

Streets, highways, interstates, and turnpikes should, first, be understood in their proper context. Government exists to protect individual rights—specifically, it exists to provide protection for individual citizens against acts of force or fraud. Nowhere in this relationship is there room for government to involve itself in the travel needs of the people. Some claim that governments build roads to promote individual “freedom of movement,” but this is a misapplication of the concept of individual rights: the “right to bear arms” does not mean the government should buy you a gun, nor does “free speech” imply an obligation to furnish a publishing company.

Like food, shelter, clothing, guns, and newspapers, roads should be treated as products of the marketplace.

Such a suggestion is admittedly a radical departure from conventional wisdom, and critics of the market will be quick to say that some things just can’t be handled through free enterprise. Yet it should be remembered that in Soviet Russia the thought of private grocery stores replacing bread lines was dismissed as impractical as well.

There is no logical reason why roads could not have private owners and be operated for profit. Ideally, government would never have been in the road construction business in the first place. As a result, the arrangement in place would already be private, and drivers would be experiencing the same kinds of quality and innovation that consumers take for granted in truly market-oriented fields.

The difference that drivers would see under a private system of roads is impossible to strictly determine. Many roads would probably be abandoned as unnecessary, others as unprofitable, and the charging system could vary from city to city, or even within a city. Most likely, highways would price according to demand, with the cost rising at the busiest times of the day to minimize congestion. (The unintended positive effects would be fewer accidents and lower emissions.)

The condition of roads would also likely improve. If a road owner allowed his thoroughfare to deteriorate to a degree unacceptable to those driving on it, they would promptly find another route to their destination. Ultimately, drivers-as-consumers would be able to vote on a daily basis their approval or disapproval of the condition, policing, and safety of any given street or highway by granting or withholding their patronage. Unlike government-owned services, however, road providers would have to remain ever mindful of customer satisfaction if they hoped to stay in business.

For example, after Buffalo, New York, was blanketed with nearly seven feet of snow last winter, the governor ordered out the National Guard, and Representative Jack Quinn even requested federal aid to help dig the city out. What private road company could sit by while its profits dropped to nil because a snowstorm rendered its streets and highways so completely impassable? California reported that an estimated 37 percent of its roads are in “poor” condition—imagine the fate of any private business that received such a rating from over a third of its customers.

How to Make the Transition

Many concerns will inevitably arise. Would interested companies be allowed to bid for parcels or entire citywide networks? Could an individual homeowner be granted title to the piece of street outside his house? And how would current easements and rights-of-way be secured?

These are all valid questions, and the onerous task of city councilmen and state legislators would be to address them in a manner least disruptive to the citizenry. A wise first step might be to enlist the support of organizations like Toll Road Investment Partnership II, which built and maintains the 14-mile Dulles Greenway Toll Road outside of Washington, D.C. Sound advice could also likely be gleaned from our Canadian cousins. A private highway north of Toronto is run by 407 International, Inc., a consortium of Spanish and Canadian firms.

The government might even look overseas for guidance on private road construction and ownership. Finland currently has 80,000 kilometers of private roads, while Sydney, Australia, uses a number of private tollways and actually raised some of the capital to build them through public stock offerings.

Opponents of private roads will be wont to point out the imperfections of any plan proposed, but they should quickly be reminded that government created this problem. As economist David Friedman observed in his essay “Sell the Streets”: “Certainly there are practical difficulties in transferring the present system . . . to private hands. The cost of negotiating private contracts . . . would be considerable. So are the costs of the present governmentally owned system.” (The essay appears in Friedman’s book The Machinery of Freedom.)

For most, it is accepted as a simple fact of life that we will always pay a burdensome tax rate for substandard streets and highways. If we truly want change, though, we should stop doing what we’ve always done and try the only fresh approach—get government and its bureaucracy out of the way and let private initiative satisfy Americans’ driving needs.

  • Scott McPherson is a policy adviser at the Future of Freedom Foundation, and author of Freedom and Security: The Second Amendment and the Right to Keep and Bear Arms. An advocate of the Free State Project, he lives in Portsmouth, New Hampshire.