Dr. William Anderson’s superb article concerns a subject some of the Shooters and I have been kicking around recently. Our focus was on why governments shouldn’t build roads at all, part of which is that it is always inefficient to filter money through some bureaucracy. Between waste, the misallocation of funds to pay for the departments and personnel, inferior products, social engineering, and the inevitable corruption when tax dollars are being scattered around “public” roads are a very poor solution to the problem of how to move traffic from points A through Z.
As is always the case, unfettered private enterprise and a free market would be less expensive, generate real profits, and lead to better roads that reflected the true needs of traffic. Toll roads are also how the Founding Fathers dealt with problem.
Let’s break this down into individual categories, starting with where we live. As a pretty general rule residential streets are in good shape because there is little traffic. Developers build the roads in new areas so it would be prudent of new home buyers–should there ever become a good supply of those–to consider the quality of the streets which come, basically, as part of their purchases. It might be possible to negotiate upkeep for twenty years, which would give the developer an even stronger urge to insist upon quality.
What about those who live in older areas? What to do when a chug hole develops? When there is a market, someone will provide a service, and having the hole that is bothering you (and your neighbors) filled and paying for it will be a great deal more cost-effective than the current system. There are any number of paving companies which pave driveways in rural areas, and I am certain they would be glad to come dump a little hot, gritty asphalt in your depression at a price that only seems exorbitant until you consider the million dollar a mile roads that governments build. It is likely that someone would come up with a DYI product sold at Lowe’s and Home Depot.
The condition of the road in front of your home is of interest only to those who live on your street. Why should public tax dollars be spent to keep them in good condition? Not that the system works very well. Others may be paying to keep your Mockingbird Lane in acceptable condition, but you are paying for a great many other roads. We never get more than we pay out back; earmarks go to the “in” crowd.
Farm to market roads? Once again, those should be the responsibility of those who use them. There aren’t enough small farms and ranches left in America to speak of–some 2.1 million farms are all that remain due to high inheritance taxes and regulations in favor of Archer Daniel Midlands, Tyson, and so forth. That’s pretty frightening. FDR had a population of 125 million to feed and over five million farms to do it with. Agribiz is in big trouble with the cost of fuel, labor, power, feed, fertilizer, taxes, and government mandates. Too many of my neighbors are planting houses where dairy and beef cattle once grazed. However, roads hold up remarkably well when not subjected to traffic from heavy vehicles.
My theory is that people can and will put up with a deteriorated road until it becomes annoying enough to pay to have it fixed or to master the skills necessary to do their own repairs.
City streets? Again, those usually show little wear from regular vehicular traffic, and if the roads deteriorate to the point where customers flee, the merchants will see the wisdom of making repairs. If we pulled up the statistics on taxes budgeted to build streets and even highways we would be astounded by how much more money we taxpayers could keep if the government were forced out of the road-building and repair businesses.
Now we come to the big two, interstates and new construction. There are already “road use” taxes and a modest toll system should provide ample to keep current major links in repair. Whatever made anyone think that roads should be “free?!” Very little in life is free; we pay for it one way or another. At present those of us who pay taxes are subsidizing in yet another way those who do not for things that we neither want nor use most of the time.
Recently my darling Charles and I had to go to Houston (always a nightmare) to pick up something. We had a very frustrating experience on what should still be the wave of the future; a similar system is growing in at least the D/FW area. The problem with Tollway 8 is…it is very difficult for a one-time user to get on! Those who use this high speed marvel have a little sticker that is read automatically and they receive a bill for road use once a month. The traffic whizzes along, and the exits are well constructed not to lead to backups. About every third entrance there is a kiosk that sells the stickers, which was not practical in our case because we hope devoutly never to be on Tollway 8 again. Those are usually near an entrance that will allow the occasional traveler to hand over money–and access to these booths is designed splendidly so that they do not impede the other traffic. Our GPS was having a nervous breakdown insisting that we should get up on the tollway, not realizing that we were not allowed to. Tollway 8 has no silly “HOV” lanes, choosing–wisely–not to reduce the carrying capacity of their expensive investment in a futile attempt to force users to car pool. If there are three lanes an HOV restriction reduces capability by one-third; four lanes see the loss of a quarter of capacity and produces bottle necks when the HOV lane ends. Insanity.
What of those who do not wish to trade money for speed? It is still quite possible to traverse those miles on suburban streets. You pays your money or you takes your chances. In many areas it is faster to stick to city streets than it is to get on the “free” way. When John and I lived in Derby (a bedroom community near Wichita, Kansas) his truck went for service to a dealer on the far side of Wichita. John always took the freeways, while I always used ordinary roads. Invariably we ended up at the dealership in a dead heat! And no, I do not exceed the speed limit, ever.
The sad truth is that there are entirely too many people and far too many vehicles, a situation beyond repair other than in the minds of those who want to see the population of the earth reduced to a permanent maximum of five hundred million. No, friends, that isn’t conspiracy theory; I saw the speech in the UN where some sanctimonious female promised to “kill (us) as kindly and gently as possible.” Isn’t that sweet? How very thoughtful. Who chooses?
Government “planners” seldom put roads where they need to be. One of the major difficulties in Wichita, for example–it is possible this has been corrected in the nearly twenty years since I have been there–is that it is laid out almost entirely on a grid system. There was only one major diagonal road! Their planners hadn’t taken into account that the square of the hyptenuse is the way to reduce the swear words on the other two sides. Hard, clear-eyed entrepreneurs would work out which new roads would be the most profitable because that is where people want improved ease of travel enough to pay for it.
I only see one problem, but I am certain there is a solution if we troubled ourselves to work it out. I don’t approve of eminent domain anyway–and recent scandals bear out my scorn. No doubt James Howard Kunstler knows and might even be induced to tell us. Private corporations would have no power to force others to sell their land–and rightly so. This may mean that the solution is to build toll roads further out, encouraging flight from the cities. Perhaps it is selling the current freeway systems to private individuals who will make them function more efficiently, while raising a nice hunk of cash to reduce the debt. Perhaps social pressure would suffice to induce those who didn’t want to move to cooperate, or some deal could be made to swap nicer foreclosed upon homes for where the residents are now. Where there’s a profit there is a way.
Cordially,Linda Brady Traynham
February 5, 2010
I’m too lazy to research it, but wasn’t the Kansas Turnpike which goes right past Derby built by some sort of private or hybrid corporation back in the 1960′s? Also, any idea of the derivation of the term “chug hole”? The more refined around here call them “chuck” holes.
Finally and irrelevently, I once performed as half of a duet using the stage name “Derby Oxnard”. My partner was “Mulvane”. No one else will understand this and I will likely not explain. (Or be allowed to.)
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Great article as usual. Roads are complex because of their interconnectedness, like many things that get turned over to the government out of exasperation or lack of inspiration. Since there will be multiple owners of roads in a system of private ownership, who will own the intersections? What could be done to the owner of a street that bisects a town who decides to restrict access from one side of the town to the other to enact an exorbitant fee? I agree that the federal government’s role in the roadway system has been destructive, encouraging suburbanization and the use of semi trucks over the far more efficient rail system. I’m just not sure if private ownership of roads is better than more localized control over them.
It is a similar problem to many involving the government. A system grows based on the rules in place during its development. A system that has grown up under government control has certain properties which make it unsuitable for use under private control. A system that had grown up under private control would be radically, unimaginably different in its construction. I cannot see the road system we have today being privatized, just as I cannot see the government being able to take over the role of the big chain retailers. The systems are wholly incompatible.
In reply to your question (from another article) about my specialty, I am a mechanical engineer and work as a project manager.
I don’t know about the Kansas Turnpike–K-15 certainly went past Derby, and there was a road parallel to that on the other side of the city, but I forget its name. We only lived there from ’86 to ’89 when John was with Boeing.
No idea why we ankle people in Texas call them “chug holes,” but we do. Charles tells me they are referred to as “chuck holes” in Yankeeland. Perhaps because they are holes into which one chucks money?
Let’s hope you wore a mask while performing.
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Linda you and Milton should go to the same unregulated surgen so we can see if you survive before I need to use him.
Roads are a nessary evil to our budgets, but quality of construction is the unregulated variable which wastes money. OSHA, EPA, Mining Regulations,and Labor laws have increased the cost of road construction past our ability to pay with Motor Fuel Tax. MFT in IL.which is a fixed dollar amount per gallon has not increased much since the 60′s, but the cost of roads has 10 folded. EPA removed coal tars from the blacktop mix, because they labed them as a carcinogen, but allow old asphalt to be ground in to power every summer and placed on gravel parking, roads, and shoulders. After the coal tar was eliminated they replaced the mix with latex emulsion now the asphalt lasts 1/2 as long as the old hard oil mixes, all in the name of progress
Regarding the question of who would own an intersection in a private system: Government roads are “communal property”. When 2 roads intersect in Wichita, 300,000 people “own” the intersection. I don’t think it is too hard to imagine two companies or individuals owning an intersection. I share the easement behind my house with my neighbor, and it receives better care than local municipal recreational facilities.
Regarding roads being a necessary evil: There is no such thing as a necessary government function. Why is violently forcing people to pay for a road they don’t use, that is cared for by people with no incentive, innately better than OSHA or the EPA?
I think the article is great. There are plenty of other articles at mises.org that deal with the straight road domain issue presented at the end of the article.
You either have faith in coercive government, or you have faith in voluntary free markets.
Roads would be OK for small communities where there is social interaction by the public. Did you know the Golden Gate Bridge was built with private funds? Davis Bacon was what rased labor rates to unprecidented levels in the Southwest. Hope you drove one of your Jags on your trip (if they are running!) Sorry…bad kitty!
“Our focus was on why governments shouldn’t build roads at all, part of which is that it is always inefficient to filter money through some bureaucracy.” I agree with this completely, but unfortunately I do still do not envision this problem as solved by privatizing.
While I agree with most of what you say I don’t see it working for residential area’s.
“The condition of the road in front of your home is of interest only to those who live on your street.”
This is where i foresee a problem. Firstly residential roads are not only used by residents. They are used by visitors, estate agents, people passing through, police, ambulances, utility companies, postal services, moving companies, etc.
Furthermore let us look at the situation of me having a pot hole in front of my house. Obviously it is of concern to me, it would also be of concern to my direct neighbors. There may however be a problem in convincing people living a few blocks away that it is their problem too. Your solution as such suggest implicitly suggest that all residential owners on a given street need to pay a equal amount for any repairs. Say a single(or a few) residents refuse, obviously the hole still needs to be repaired and one cannot force them to contribute, thus if the road is fixed they will get the benefit without paying for it. This does not even consider people who live on street corners and effectively on two roads, should they pay for both, or half a share of each? Of course those that refuse would have problems convincing their neighbors in future if they should develop a pot hole in front of their house. This disincentive may be enough to stop objections in a particular street.
I think this could be better solved with local municipal oversight funded by local taxes of people and businesses in the area. Of course this is not ideal and more money will be spent in this upkeep, but I for one, do not see a choice in the matter.
As you might expect, those of us involved with Civilization Engineering have also spent a great deal of time considering this very problem. Just a few comments: No toll booths required and the billing system would be very similar to the toll “reader” you referenced. Have you noticed that within every city, you never know whether or not you will enter a freeway from the right lane or from the left lane? Guess how many accidents that alone has caused? Private industry design would make all roads much safer because they would all be uniform – the traveler would know in advance what to expect and not be caught by surprise when in an unfamiliar area. Price for usage would be nominal because the system would be much less labor intensive. Maintenance would be excellent because the road owner would guarantee the safety of his product. When the majority of the traffic direction is one way, part of the opposite direction can be diverted (safely) to accommodate the extra volume thus alleviating slowing and accordioning. Ever notice that a burglar can drive to your house, steal your stuff and leave while the police are clueless as to who the perp might be? Private fee-for-service roads know their customers so the thief gets recorded simply due to their driving habits even if the car has been stolen. These are just a few improvements possible with private road ownership and maintenance.
Of course private ownership instead of public ownership would apply to everything now “operated” by a government. The same arguments apply to all. Why should it cost the same postage to send a letter to a near-by neighbor as to someone clear across the country? Or the same as to an extremely rural address where mail boxes are miles apart? Many solutions exist and they’re all available from private ownership of the services.
I’ve read many of Bill Anderson’s articles as they’ve been published on Mises Daily. He is an excellent thinker and writer. I hope to be able to meet him someday.
Why is it that we have public ownership of roads in this day and age? I think that the whole idea behind public ownership and the government planning of roads is because the private ownership system did not working. If you have ever been to London, England and done any traveling in the old parts of the city you will see a system of haphazard roads that challenges you to find anything. The whole point of building a city on a grid system is that its easy to navigate and find places you want to go. Most of the western USA is on a grid system that facilitated the settling of the American West. This allowed people and goods to move from point A to point B. When the government was in the business of giving away land this grid system of roads allowed people to have access to markets that would not have been accessible otherwise. These roads benefit you even if you do not travel on them. When you lower the cost of transportation for products it lowers the cost of the entire product. This is not practical without a decent road system. Look at Brazil as a case in point. You can include the lock and dam system we have in the USA. I do agree that we made a huge mistake with the interstate road system that has destroyed rail and public transport systems that we had in place previously. Of course the interstate system started out as a defense project and was more interested in the ability to move troops and material quickly in the event of war. The war planners do not have to depend on rail schedules now. Its very easy to armchair quarterback the system that we have in place in this country today. Heaven knows that it could be improved, but road system is basically under local control. How many people complaining here have actually served on your township board?. The township is the one that maintains most of the local roads in existence. The government does not actually build the roads themselves. That is done by private companies that compete against other companies with the winner usually going to the company with the lowest bid. (ideally this is how it is to work but I dont know how much graft and corruption exists in this process) There are examples of private individuals banning together to create infrastructure systems but these are quasi government run. The best example I can think of this is the drainage districts created in my home state of Illinois in the late 1800s to drain the prairie and open it up to agriculture. A person didnt really have a choice but to participate in these districts as they all connected to one another and the water had to be transported many miles to a river or stream. Everyone has to chip in not just for the drainage on your own farm but for the cost of the main headers. If you dont have good drainage on your farm you may as well just get a job in town as you are going to go broke anyhow. In the end you have the same result. Call it what you want but thats the definition of government. A group of individuals working together towards a common goal. Someone has to set up standards and make all these systems work together. Is it perfect ? No but it beats the heck out of a corporation that controls everything you do. A corporation is not set up to work in the best interest of the public, it is set up to work in the best interest of itself. At least I have the ability to vote for representatives or to even be elected myself. Its not that hard, I have served on several boards and such in the past. My brother currently serves on his township board and has a direct influence on the money that is spent for roads in his township. In fact I challenge all of you who think that the system is broken and beyond repair to get involved. There are very few people willing to serve on these local boards that have an ounce of sense. You can have a direct impact on the way things are done and help to control the waste of taxpayer dollars.
I always thought a “chug hole” was my local bar, where you go to host a few frosty ones after a big Do-Yourself-It project.
Dear Mr. Middleton:
Thank you for your delightful letter, which I want to assure my beloved readers I did not write myself. Since I can’t talk Agora out of rich text, I am denied the use of changed font or color so I shall put my responses in parentheses:
Linda you and Milton should go to the same unregulated surgen so we can see if you survive before I need to use him. (I have every confidence in my ability to choose a surgeon, should I ever need one, without the assistance of the government, but I will be glad to tell you of my experiences if I do. I always seek personal recommendations because the hypocratic oath does not appear to cover negative comments on the works of less-qualified scalpal-wielders.)
Roads are a nessary evil to our budgets, but quality of construction is the unregulated variable which wastes money. (Glorious laughter! “Quality” of construction is the vastly-overregulated elephant in the bath tub that has lead to vastly more expensive and less durable roads.) OSHA, EPA, Mining Regulations,and Labor laws have increased the cost of road construction past our ability to pay with Motor Fuel Tax. (Truer words were seldom spoken. As in most areas, ludicrous restrictions and mandates which serve no genuine purpose are the barnacles which are what destroyed American manufacturing.) MFT in IL.which is a fixed dollar amount per gallon has not increased much since the 60’s, but the cost of roads has 10 folded. EPA removed coal tars from the blacktop mix, because they labed them as a carcinogen, (Is that a problem in your area? Down here in Texas we neither sniff, eat, nor make children’s toys out of black top, but who knows what customs prevail in Washington.) but allow old asphalt to be ground in to power (Powder, I suppose? [and yes, I make typos, too] although “power” works beautifully.) every summer and placed on gravel parking, roads, and shoulders. After the coal tar was eliminated they replaced the mix with latex emulsion now the asphalt lasts 1/2 as long as the old hard oil mixes, all in the name of progress. (No, dear, in the name of Progressives, who favor destruction of wealth wherever it can be found. The purpose of all of this is destruction of the pesky middle class and increase of power. It is clear that you have an excellent mind and you marshall your arguments well. Now, go read some von Mises and/or just keep reading W&G with an open mind and try looking at issues from our perspective and see if what we write does not begin to make excellent sense to you. WHAT roads should be made of was not the issue, here although I agree completely that the details of road construction should be left to engineers who are qualified to determine the best methods and materials without let or hindrance from the government or the disastrously political EPA and OSHA. My thesis is that–as is always the case–private enterprise could build better roads, maintain them better, and put them where they need to be at lower cost. Thanks for writing. I look forward to hearing from you again. Cordially, LBT
Dear Wash Tam: Thanks for a great response, and for telling me (blush of shame) about vonmises.org. Chuckle…I sort of make all this stuff up as I go along based on nearly 70 years of reading widely and observing what “progressives” have done to our country. Just one thing…if two major arterials under private ownership intersected it would be the responsibility of them to work out repairs/access. However, the intersection of Mockingbird Lane and Brook Forest should “belong” to those who own property in the immediate area, not all of Wichita. I can see great opportunities here, myself, since I clearly have the soul of a robber baron. If I lived on the corner of such an intersection and my neighbors and I could not agree on sharing the relatively minor cost of repairs, I would suggest we draw up a schedule, construct a small toll booth, man it ourselves, and charge every car passing by fifty cents until we had raised the money. This would serve two purposes besides raising money: it would make my neighbors see that usually it is better to pay for such things ourselves than to extort money from others (even though that is fair, if heavy traffic is using “our” roads;) it would lead to larger donations from those who did not want the inconvenience of having to stop and pay us four bits every time (we could give them a nice sticker for their windshields.) Those who were outraged by the thought of paying to repair “our” roads would find a different route, thereby reducing further damage and making ours a quieter and safer neighborhood. I will never believe that 300,000 people are responsible for fixing my problems–although usually they are the cause of them through the officials they elect. Nobody pays to maintain my water well; why should they? That is my expense, for my convenience and use. True, I have advantages that city-dwellers do not; moral. Get out of the city! My dear old dog is barking very loudly (the only way she knows how) right now, and she isn’t bothering anyone. The farther away from “civilization” one gets, the nicer it is! Cordially, Linda
OIlwelldoctor, you adorable nut…you and CanadaNorth do delight in teasing me about my beloved Cats. All of them run except one, thank you, and that one will as soon as I get the ignition replaced, the problem being ALL of the keys are missing and she’s an ’88, back when they didn’t make universal keys.
No, we had to take a truck because we were picking up an old-fashioned slosh you water bed.
I’m still managing not to be dragged away from the rancho more than three times a month, averaging slightly under a hundred miles total, although I’m not doing as well persuading others that errands should be stacked up until one of them is urgent. Hugs, Linda
Dear Michael: I thought those were “watering holes.” LBT
Thanks for another great response and it doesn’t surprise me at ALL to learn that you are an engineer and project manager! It isn’t necessary, exactly, to be an engineer to become one of my few close male friends but with only one exception they all are. Such INTERESTING minds. Being a PM is icing on the rutabagas.
I have trouble getting more than one reply to post so I’m going to answer you separately and write a multiple wow cum thank you. Tex Norton, of course, already write for W&G, and I think that several of you not only have plenty to say but say it very well. You could write articles of your own. Your writings are logical, cohesive, and on point. Anybody who wants to try send me an editorial over to the Texas Ring. In the meantime, thank all of you very much for your interesting comments and keeping me on my toes.
For a quick response, what if we started by encouraging privatization of major new construction, then phased to putting current inadequate stretches–such as Tacoma to Seattle–up for sale? That would go far towards handling the right of way problem. When the price asked for a service is too high people find an alternative; it would be difficult for someone to corner the market in street corners! I’m trying to come up with a way to cut out waste while producing faster, smoother-flowing traffic. Those on Tollway 8 are willing to trade money for speed; those who aren’t have ample alternatives. For fun count the number of ways you could get to work if a road were blocked. I can get to the nearest highway four different ways without costing myself more than a couple of miles. My “mile-door” neighbor where the county road in front of the ranch intersects the farm to market road COULD, in theory set up a toll both, but in addition to the disapprobation of the few of us who use Wilcox Lane he would have to buy property (not for sale) to block the other end AND a way to keep us from going through the subdivision behind the ranch. IF that could be done, I’m pretty sure The owner of the 1500 acre dairy across the street would either provide access out of civic outrage or set up his own, far less expensive alternative. It simply wouldn’t be worth it to try to block access to six people, two of them close relatives. We aren’t talking about controlling traffic on the Rhein! Hugs, Linda
Hi, guys…Baltimore is so snowed under Taipan Daily is having trouble getting enough employees in to publish, so perhaps we shouldn’t expect anyone to clean out the SPAM filter any time soon. If you haven’t checked http://www.thetexasring.com lately–do. Tony De Maio let out a blast reminescent of Jove hurling thunderbolts and we have a great new writer. If you’re on the eastern seabord bundle up well. LBT
This article is so naive it’s scary. What planet do you live on?
Dear Sea Man: My first response to you didn’t post and this article will drop off the page Monday, so I”ll leave you another under my next article to be posted. You’ll probably love it! I advocate investing in munitions! That may be scary, but it isn’t naive. Oh…which seas did YOU sail on? Sailors are usually pretty savvy guys. My fantastic one is hoping I’ll stop answering mail and go to bed soon and he didn’t snicker or dispute my thesis eiither time. If I were wrong thinking anything he’d be the first to explain to me gently and politely where I went astray. If you want to talk facts, I’m ready. LBT
Oldmanriver, dear…your lengthy missive got away from me, but I have copied it and you will find my answer under Juggling Act after it goes up. The grid system allows you to stair-step your way across a city. A wheel system is far more effective. I have yet to be on a township board but I HAVE been an elected public official, an exhausting, thankless task–and I didn’t even take travel expenses or per diem. As for “a group of citizens working towards a common goal,” that doesn’t begin to describe today’s mobocracy under insider control. As a very good rule on any given issue we’re divided about 50-50–other than on socialized medicine and same-sex “marriage” and so forth. Always good to hear from you. Cordially, Linda
Of course Linda! it is always my pleasure
Yes indeed it is exhausting to be in public service, but if we had more people willing to undertake it perhaps the task would not seem to great. I have served as well and it is thankless. Of course a wheel might be more effective in a city, but wheels dont work nearly as well for country roads as the fields would have too many bends and curves. I like my rows to be straight and even. No point rows to deal with, no wasted seed and inputs. It just works out better. As my father would say after seeing some creative soul building a house that was “out of plumb with the world “(not facing north or south, east or west) “How does that moron know if the sun is going up or down” We have an affinity for straight lines in corn country. A man that cant plant in a straight line obviously has some serious defects.
Roads, schools, and a whole list of things are items nations spend from taxes. No big deal. Americans wish to spend billions in Iraq instead of their own nation, let them. Each US aircraft carrier cost $3 million per day to run, and the US has 12 of them. Americans want to play policeman to the world, instead of spending money at home, let them. But don’t cry when the next time your car hits a pothole please.
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