|1956 Map of Eisenhower Highway System|
Someone should start preparing the eulogy for publicly operated, built, and financed roads. The era of government grants, shovel-ready projects, and pork-barrel politics is coming to an end, and, like anyone overstaying their welcome, it’s taking much longer than is appropriate to say goodbye. I believe that the construction of a standardized, integrated 41,000+
mile national highway system could only be possible with the massive amount of
capital and funding provided by the federal government. However, with the completion of the highway
system near the turn of the century, the era of mega-scale public works
projects is waning, replaced, in part, with the bothersome and costly task of
adequately maintaining and operating that infrastructure. In addition to states deferring routine
highway maintenance in hopes that the federal government will simply replace it
(Semmens 2012), there are issues with lobbyists and
special interest groups impractically influencing the funding and revenue
streams; inefficiencies and waste with
multi-level government planning; and over-regulated systems that discourage any
kind of innovative cost-saving practices (Roth 2010). In contrast, private entities won’t build a
project unless they see a return in it, i.e. unless it makes economic sense,
and their relatively smaller size allows for more customized solutions that
better represent the needs and behaviors of the users.
|The Lee Roy Selmon Crosstown Expressway, a high-occupancy toll lanes project in Tampa, Fla., is shown completed and in use. The $420 million, 10-mile elevated tollway was built by private investors.|
In his review of Clifford Winston’s Last Exit: Privatization and Deregulation of the U.S. Transportation System, John Semmens summarizes the author’s critiques of government run transportation with phrases like “undermines efficiency,” “ballooned… operating deficits,” “politics overrides economics,” and “irrational user-tax policies.”
(Semmens 2012) The main critique, out of which the majority
of problems arise, is simply the way in which roads are currently taxed and how
the funds revenues from which are handled.
The revenue from gas taxes, historically the bulk of federal highway
funding, has progressively lost its purchasing power due to a combination of
increased construction costs and a decades-long unwillingness to increase
the tax. A 2011 report from the
Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy attributes these factors as causing a
20% decrease in the real value of States’ rates and a 41% decrease in federal
since the last gas tax increase. Add to these ear-marks for
low-priority projects (Bridge to Nowhere), ever expanding state budget-gaps,
and “half of the states [being] shortchanged by the current
highway trust fund allocations” (Roth 2010), there is a strong
case for a change in road management.
|Chicago Skyway privatized in 2004.|
Kenneth Small listed out in his article Urban Transportation Policy: A Guide and Road Map three ways which private companies are better suited for road operation and management. First, as mentioned before, private companies are not going to invest in something from which they don’t foresee a profit or which will sink them in debt. Thus, fiscal and economic feasibility of any project they endeavor to take on will be thoroughly researched. This logically translates as providing services for which the community demands, meaning a more satisfied constituency. Secondly private companies are more experienced with “price sensitivity, public perceptions, marketing, and the roll of price differentiation.” Experience is important. A U.S. PIRG Education Fund report acknowledges that privatization is a good choice when a private company has a “proven comparative advantage over government agencies in providing a particular good or service.”(Baxandall 2009) Not being enmeshed (though still not entirely immune) in the politics of road use is one of those comparative advantages that would mean faster and more customizable service. Thirdly Small writes that a by-product of pursuing a profit is a constant desire for more efficiency, on the road and in the office. “It is well known in the academic literature that a private road operator, even one with a monopoly, will choose to differentiate prices by time of day in a manner very similar to that called for by standard congestion pricing recommendations.”
|A failed privatized toll road in Brisbane, Austrailia|
Admittedly there are risks and downsides to privatizing transportation infrastructure. In the same U.S. PIRG report mentioned above, author Baxandall lists some of the pitfalls that can accompany these deals. Non-compete clauses have metaphorically bound the hands of the government in their efforts to improve neighboring public highways seeing that those improvements would take business away from the private company. Long term leases, 75 and 99 years, are far too long for legislators to be able to predict the needs of the populace. There is also a lack of transparency, the public not getting the full value of the road, and always a fear of inequity. Some of these issues can be addressed through smarter contracts, shorter leases, and more oversight, while better management of spending and innovation is needed to solve others like the equity problem. The fact remains that governments are struggling to adequately manage their existing assets and the budget gaps seem to get bigger every year. While privatization poses both risks and advantages, I believe the latter outweighs the former.
Good-bye crumbling, out-of-date infrastructure. Rest in peace.
- Baxandall, Phineas, “Privatre Roads, Public Costs,” 2009. http://cdn.publicinterestnetwork.org/assets/H5Ql0NcoPVeVJwymwlURRw/Private-Roads-Public-Costs.pdf
- Roth, Gabriel, "Federal Highway Funding," 2010. http://www.downsizinggovernment.org/transportation/federal-highway-funding
- Small, Kenneth, "Urban Transportation Policy: A Guide and Roadmap," 2007. http://www.economics.uci.edu/files/economics/docs/workingpapers/2006-07/Small-24.pdf
- Semmens, John. 2012. "Last Exit: Privatization and Deregulation of the U.S. Transportation System." The Independent Review Vol. 16 Issue 3, p 456-460.