Why Government Shouldn't Build Roads

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.

Linda Brady Traynham

February 5, 2010

The Daily Reckoning