3 reasons to explore road privatization

Posted on October 25, 2012


Americans are bombarded with rhetoric about the country’s failing transportation infrastructure. We hear horror stories about crumbling bridges, eroded pavement on highways, and a lack of sidewalks connecting communities. Peel away the partisan talking points and there is a common thread among most lobbying efforts:

Government will own and operate some or all of the country’s roads. Public roads for all; free roads for all.

What if government agencies (local, state, regional, or federal) didn’t own any roads? What if entrepreneurs, retail developers, small businesses, large businesses, trusts, and other private corporations owned and operated transportation networks? Downtown city streets, rural highways, and everything in between—owned and operated by a wide variety of financially invested parties.

Outrageous? Impossible? Anti-American?

Here are three reasons why the status quo authorities should be questioned by exploring privatization.

1. Private roads would save lives and reduce injuries.

In 2010, more than 30,000 people were killed in vehicle crashes. More than 400,000 people were killed in the decade 2001-2010. A whopping 24% of those people weren’t even in a car!

If private entities owned and operated roads, there would be an accountability process in place. Public officials are not held accountable when users of their product are tragically killed. We have been trained to accept massive roadway carnage as an acceptable cost of transportation. We are trained to call car crashes “accidents”.

Private enterprise would take real and measurable steps to reverse the horrific loss of life on our nation’s roads. The current one-size-fits-all mentality that turns community streets into raceways would be rejected as unsafe and unwise for communities, and by extension—bad for business. Publicly subsidized streets have been designed like highways. Suburban drivers feel comfortable steering with their knees while balancing a hamburger, soda, and mobile phone. Narrow streets, wider sidewalks, smaller intersections for people to walk across, well-lit bus stops—all possible ways that private enterprise would make streets safer for both drivers and people walking or bicycling.

This is naturally a challenging theory to prove, because we currently have no examples of truly privatized systems large enough to make meaningful comparisons. Interstate toll roads procured through design-build contracts have government influence throughout. When you hear about public-private transportation projects, know that government agencies are inseparable. State design standards must be maintained, government permits must be acquired, for starters.

Saving lives—tens of thousands of lives—is not partisan politics. Privatization of roads to save lives is not a partisan proposal. It is simply a proposal.

2. Private roads would use resources more efficiently.

Doing anything in the name of “the greater good” is a bold statement. Whose good, exactly? All members of the public? A simple majority? A vocal minority? Even if the government had the power to provide sunny days for everyone, what about the people trying to grow gardens waiting anxiously for rain? Understanding government’s definition of the greater good is kind of a big deal.

Many transportation projects have been initiated in the name of the greater good. Robert Moses became synonymous with urban renewal in the 20th century. Remember Charlton Heston in The Ten Commandments? Picture Moses raising his staff as the Red Sea parts, leaving wide swath of dry land for the Israelites to cross. That’s probably what it was like to witness expansive highways divide communities in New York City under the staff of Robert Moses.

Government-funded renewal projects were devised and executed as a way to help people. But let’s not completely demonize Robert Moses, when it was the publicly-subsidized system that made it possible for highways across the United States to rip cities apart, creating desolate wastelands.

In a privatized system roads would be constructed, widened, or narrowed based on market demands. Customer service would be the highest priority. The idea of “the greater good” would become measurable for transportation networks, just like with any other product or service. In 2012, one city may see the installation of 5 new frozen yogurt stores for the greater good. Another city may not. It’s no different with road networks.

Owners of roads would try to please communities, earn their business, and make a profit. Which means owners would be as careful as possible when using natural resources or impacting adjacent land uses. A system that values private property wouldn’t tolerate colossal environmental damage, excess water runoff to neighboring parcels, or highways shredding city centers. Prospective road owners would want to make financial investments where they saw long-term value. To use modern planning and engineering lingo, privatization promotes sustainability.

3. Private roads would promote freedom of choice.

Every product or service gets better with privatization. Better in terms of quality and efficiency. That concept should be about as obvious as the natural law of gravity, and yet some audiences perceive it as controversial. Consider for a moment your level of trust in the US Post Office versus private shippers.

Transportation subsidies have overwhelmingly favored one mode of travel for decades. The automobile. All the little details associated with a transportation network point back to moving as many vehicles as possible as quickly as possible. At the community level, the public subsidy format plays out in terms of wider roads that bring more traffic jams (see: induced demand) and more dangerous conditions for people walking and bicycling.

Publicly subsidized transportation does not support freedom of modal choice because the system is not set up to meet the needs of the end user. Today it doesn’t matter if the customer base wants to emulate European villages where people, bikes, and cars all share space in the streets. Customers are told that road standards prevent them from purchasing the product and service they want. Instead, customers are forced to pay for a system that fits government’s definition of the greater good.

Privatization could end discrimination against those who choose alternate modes of travel.

The Wrap

With all the rhetoric about innovative ways to improve transportation infrastructure, it’s disappointing that this topic never gets due consideration.

Private roads would save lives and reduce injuries.

Private roads would use resources more efficiently.

Private roads would promote freedom of choice.

No one will have a response to all the possible implementation strategies or hurdles. But that isn’t the point…yet. Are there any reasons to not explore road privatization?