The Roads Governments Toll

Governments have never had any business building roads, particularly now that the USA has reached the point where developers build local ones necessary to further endless suburban sprawl and city limit creep and there is a more than adequate network of roads crisscrossing the land.  True, some of those are in deteriorating condition, but in general the greatest problems are getting through and past cities, exacerbated by rising population.

Down in the little corner of the Bar where I am allowed to wipe up occasional moisture rings and smile as I hand a regular his shot or a little dish of salted peanuts, the conversation centers frequently on the inexorable political and economic changes which demand better ways to preserve and allocate resources (personal and governmental) and recognition there will be less traffic of many kinds in the future.

Whether you agree with the “Doom & Gloom set” or not,  a look at recent statistics will be beneficial.  UPS profits are down fifty per cent., and a reasonable supposition is that UPS is carrying fewer parcels, not that FedEx and the USPS have superior bean counters and better advertising departments.  Rail traffic is down a third, as is trucking.  Bus traffic is down.  This is due to a combination of less production, less demand, fewer imports, fewer exports, high unemployment, increased regulation, rising fuel and labor costs, and less capital, the usual litany no matter what sector one investigates. Transportation stocks would be a very sanguine (in the meaning of “hopeful”) purchase that only a starry-eyed believer in the press releases coming out of Washington should consider.

The early roads in America were toll roads, when they weren’t beaten earth produced by local traffic and sufficient for it, and they were successful for the same reasons that they make sense now:  not only is building highways not the purview of government, but private enterprise can do a far better job of deciding which roads are really needed (i.e., will pay) and where the demand for them is, and watches costs far more closely than governments do.  They have a very personal interest in safety, if only because ours is a very litigious society.  Some of us hold firmly that in the future there will be less frivolous driving (as was demonstrated during $4/gallon gas days), and fewer places to go with less to do once one gets there.  During the Great Depression and WWII the “Sunday drive” was a rare treat, for good reasons, and today’s teenagers are denied the joyous racketing around we oldsters reveled in when we got our first cars, because gas costs too much.

Right now customers want two things to be induced to part with toll money:  the private road has to save them time and provide safer, less congested driving conditions.  Those things are worth hard-earned money.  They repay the consumer with precious time for family, leisure, and individual pursuits, or even a part-time job to supplement current income.  The choice is entirely ours, whether to pay the toll or to use the “free” ways.  Toll roads get built a great deal more quickly and keeping them in good repair is a large part of customer satisfaction.

Sometimes this doesn’t work out as well as it might, and a splendid case in point is Tollway 8 in Houston, Texas, a driving experience which should be recommended only to one’s worst enemies.  It costs about seventy-five cents a mile to travel on, speed-and-stop constantly.  It is a vast parking lot with sudden drag races.  There are surly signs everywhere threatening prosecution if one does not have a sticker (available occasionally at stores near the thing) or neglects to put the correct change in a basket.  If the driver is a visitor with no need to purchase a device that can be read for monthly billing, one wanders along hunting for the rare entrances which promise “change only” and “full services” lanes and getting cussed out by the GPS which cannot understand our refusal to follow directions.  There is little as supercilious as our Betty huffing impatiently, “Recalculating. REcalculating.”  Her scorn and frustration are quite evident.

“Full service” is a toll both where someone will take money!  (Nothing larger than a twenty, in an era where most of us carry at least fifties and usually Bernankes.  We were charged double because we were pulling a car-carrier, and one enterprising clerk wanted to count the axles on the “new” ’85 XJ6 we had gone to pick up! )  Even with four or five lanes, each toll booth turns into a choke point because the stickered traffic is reduced to a couple of lanes.  The best part of our first of three dreadful experiences was that we were not only charged three times to continue driving, but we were charged to get off!  By that time no demand would have seemed excessive short of the old Kingston Trio song about getting poor Charlie off the MTA.  We were glad to pay for our release.

The GPS having had an unprecedented hitch in her widgets, we discovered that those 36 miles and four stops ($32) had been in vain, and we had to reverse direction and go back to where we had gotten on.  (We discovered that it cost $4/segment when heading out of Houston, but $3.75 twice going the other way.  How very odd.)  Exiting was an exercise in terror because it was necessary to move three lanes to the right within a couple of blocks, and the natives were not even vaguely friendly as they zoomed along the access road at 60 mph making a cabalistic sign with their middle fingers.

I was shaken, but retain my faith that toll roads are a good solution to better driving conditions at lower cost.  (My personal recommendation remains to get out of the megalopolis and never, ever go back.  If you buy something off Craig’s List have it delivered.)  No private firm is going to build a bridge to nowhere, at least not without sufficient compensation, but some will make it possible to loop around a city rather than being stuck in my personal nomination for driver’s hell, the ancient part of I-35 going through downtown Austin.  You can spend an hour doing that, almost any time of the day or night.

Still, there are many examples of “doing it right,” such as the network around the DFW airport area.

We all know from personal driving experiences that by the time a new freeway is finally finished as a government project it is inadequate to the traffic available and ran over (if not several times) budget.  Political motivations and “social engineering” make matters even worse, such as “HOV lanes.”   Americans cannot be parted from our beloved automobiles and the convenience of responding to our own needs and schedules without consideration of the needs of others commuting with us, certainly not for a lousy bribe like having an occasional stretch of somewhat less crowded road only those with two or more occupants can use.  HOV lanes are a shocking waste of very expensive concrete and asphalt, increase congestion, and are counter to a little hunk of the Constitution about “equal treatment before the law.”

Freed from the necessity of deciding what roads were needed to facilitate traffic flow, and how to pay for them, state and local budgets would be able to repair and maintain vital city and county roads more efficiently, and in an ideal world would even lower property taxes.

We might even consider that gravel roads are still perfectly adequate for low-traffic, low-speed driving, which saves both gasoline and wear and tear on vehicles.  Further, the premise behind “farm to market” roads was that they were needed to get produce and livestock to market (duh), and the latest round of legislation favoring agribusiness will lower such traffic disastrously if it does not forbid it completely.  (See “food safety act.”)

All in all, some research in companies which build toll roads is probably worth the time.  If estimates of how long it takes for the collapse of life as we know it to transpire are unduly glum, there might be a pleasant bit of change to pick up in that sector.

Linda Brady Traynham

May 19, 2009

The Daily Reckoning