Private parking contracting giving ‘privatization’ a bad name

In the past Market Urbanism has been lukewarm on parking “privatization” (Adam on Chicago and me on LA), but I’m becoming more and more convinced that it’s a bad idea. To start off with, these “privatizations” are actually private contracting schemes – the “owners” are barely even allowed to set their own prices, nevermind decide to use their land for, *gasp* something other than parking. The possible benefit from the market urbanism perspective is that they seem to be accompanied by the raising of parking prices, but the potential pitfalls are actually quite large. Yonah Freemark explains, in a commentary on NJ Transit’s plan to “privatize” its parking lots:

Moreover, the privatization of parking management prevents the agency from engaging in what is perhaps the most promising use of that resource: Redeveloping it into transit-oriented developments. In places like the San Francisco Bay Area, former transit parking lots have been successfully morphed into neighborhoods where people live in close proximity to public transportation and therefore use it frequently. Will the privatization deal make such projects impossible?

My only quibble with Yonah (and just about everybody) is that the market’s contribution to urbanism is maligned and neglected enough as it is – do we really have to associate yet another sprawl-inducing policy intervention with “privatization”? But beyond that, he’s got a point – rather than taking on entrenched suburban interests, we’re just adding another layer of government dependents, this time of the monied corporate variety (bidders include KKR, Morgan Stanley, Carlyle, and JP Morgan). The land on which transit parking lots sit is uniquely positioned to be converted into dense development, and the only thing worse than sitting on the land would be for the agencies to sign away their rights to change that within the foreseeable future.

The good news, however, is in the link he supplies: the number of transit agencies choosing to develop their parking lots appears to be higher than the number of those who are entrenching them with private contractors. The TODs that go up are considerably more managed and insider-dominated than I would like – few upzonings take place without a specific person in mind. But then again, even around the turn of the century, when private urban mass transit and development was at its pinnacle, corruption and favoritism dogged the deals.

Private buses make a comeback in NYC

by Stephen Smith

Transit activists have been bemoaning recent cuts in the MTA’s bus routes throughout New York City, but the cuts may have a silver lining, in particular for market urbanists: they may usher in the return of private buses to the streets of New York City. Private buses (and subways, and streetcars) were once the only transit options available to New Yorkers, but since the early 20th century, and especially after World War II, virtually all intracity routes have been subsumed by various levels of government, and the network has barely grown at all since nationalization (not withstanding the Second Avenue Subway, conceived eighty years ago by a private company).

Now that’s not to say that private operators haven’t tried to compete – the outer boroughs’ immigrant communities have had robust networks of informal private vans (known in NYC as “dollar vans”), which operate illegally but have been hard to prosecute, likely due to the fact that they are used mostly by linguistically-distinct immigrant communities. The recent cuts even propelled the bootleg bus phenomenon out of its immigrant ghetto, when a brave bus operator named Joel Azumah made headlines by operating a bootleg bus route along routes cut in Manhattan, Queens, and Brooklyn. This experiment was quickly quashed by an unrelenting bureaucracy, but at least it demonstrated the mutual desire on the part of riders and entrepreneurs for private service.

The city’s Taxi and Limousine Commission appears to have headed that call, and under the direction of chairman David Yassky is trying to replace at least some of the old bus routes with private buses. Unlike the city’s much-abused private van service, where operators are technically not allowed to pick up riders off the street who haven’t called ahead of time, the buses would operate with many of the privileges of regular city buses, with the added flexibility of being able to alter their routes to fit customers’ needs. Cap’n Transit has speculated that this discretion could be used as a back-door way to expand the private buses’ reach to areas not officially sanctioned by the program.

The pilot program has its detractors, the most prominent of whom are (not surprisingly) unionized MTA employees, who recently failed to get an injunction halting the program, which is scheduled to start in early September. Some transit activists also have mixed feelings about the program, which puts transit decisions in the hands of profit-seeking entrepreneurs. Benjamin Kabak at the NYC transit blog Second Avenue Sagas has argued that the private buses are a “necessary evil” and that “[i]nstead of offering services everywhere, privatized companies offer service only along profitable routes,” but considering that private operators are apparently making profits on the MTA’s least profitable routes, it’s unclear which current routes couldn’t also be served by the private sector. (In fact, only five MTA bus routes in the whole of New York City actually make operating profits.)

But even the transit union seems to view the program as to some extent inevitable, as they themselves have submitted an application to run one of the five routes up for grabs, which looks likely to be approved. (They plan on paying drivers their old union wages, though I’d be surprised if they can survive the competition.)

The program as it currently stands does not allow for unbridled competition, but as usual, the devil’s in the details. According to the TLC’s solicitation for bids, each “service area” has the potential to be served by up to three operators, which seems to allow for relatively free market entry and exit – even the wildly successful private subway and streetcar lines of the late 19th and early 20th century often negotiated exclusivity agreements with municipalities. The document also indicates that “preference” will be given to those who can offer $2 fares and accommodate wheelchairs, but if those two goals clash, it’s unclear which will take precedence. Fixed fares have also been a problem in the past – it has been argued the legally-mandated five cent fare doomed an earlier generation of private mass transit – and the fares charged by Joel Azumah’s nascent bootleg company were apparently as high as $6 for express service.

There are some ambiguities in exactly how the service will be regulated, but the mere fact fact that the program is being run by the relatively competition-friendly TLC and not the MTA is a promising sign. Despite the potential hang-ups, this program seems to be a serious step in the direction of privatization, and we at Market Urbanism will follow the story closely, as we’re eager to see private transport make a comeback in America’s commuting capital.

Rothbard The Urbanist Part 6: Traffic Control

Maybe the delay in posts led you to believe the Rothbard Series was complete.  The good news is that there are a few more posts to go, and the ones coming up next should be the most interesting to urbanists. 

If you haven’t kept up with our discussion, Murray Rothbard’s classic For A New Liberty can be downloaded free from as pdf, web page, and audio book read by Jeff Riggenbach, and you can read the first five posts:

Rothbard the Urbanist Part 1: Public Education’s Role in Sprawl and Exclusion
Rothbard the Urbanist Part 2: Safe Streets
Rothbard the Urbanist Part 3: Prevention of Blockades
Rothbard the Urbanist Part 4: Policing

Rothbard the Urbanist Part 5: Diversity and Discrimination 

Not long ago, I posted a video from a friend showing one traffic intersection in Cambodia that appears to function well without any signaling.  Here are some other resources on the emergent order of traffic without signals:

I caught some flak from a commenter who considered it “disingenuous” to present the video of the intersection as evidence “of a workable intersection.”  Of course I had to remind the commenter that I don’t consider these types of intersection something that I advocate as a “free market” solution: 

Don’t mistake me as an advocate of a world without traffic signals. I am quite certain that some sort of traffic signaling would likely emerge from a free-market street system. But, my bigger point is that when information is dispersed widely among decision-makers without government monopoly, sustainable solutions emerge from the uncoerced behavior of individual agents over time.

This is a case where governance is needed, but not necessarily provided by government.  Some sort of cooperation would emerge among road operators, just like with technologies such as USB, DVD, or plain old electrical outlets and light bulbs.  A coercive government authority is not needed to dictate to manufacturers to use certain standards, manufacturers choose to produce industry-standardized equipment simply because it is what the customer desires.  If a lighting manufacturer decided to make a bulb that did not fit into standard sockets, who would buy it?  Probably nobody. 

I see roads as no different.  Road customers will likely choose to avoid intersections as nerve-wracking as the one in the Cambodia video if they have a more stress-free option.  Thus road operators will work to optimize flow through their intersections while minimizing unpleasantly stressful situations. 

Of course, Professor Rothbard communicates this more elegantly. I find the railroad example particularly interesting:

The principle that property is administered by its owners also provides the rebuttal to a standard argument for government intervention in the economy. The argument holds that "after all, the government sets down traffic rules — red and green lights, driving on the right-hand side, maximum speed limits, etc. Surely everyone must admit that traffic would degenerate into chaos if not for such rules. Therefore, why should government not intervene in the rest of the economy as well?" The fallacy here is not that traffic should be regulated; of course such rules are necessary. But the crucial point is that such rules will always be laid down by whoever owns and therefore administers the roads. Government has been laying down traffic rules because it is the government that has always owned and therefore run the streets and roads; in a libertarian society of private ownership the private owners would lay down the rules for the use of their roads.

However, might not the traffic rules be "chaotic" in a purely free society? Wouldn’t some owners designate red for "stop," others green or blue, etc.? Wouldn’t some roads be used on the right-hand side and others on the left? Such questions are absurd. Obviously, it would be [p. 208] to the interest of all road owners to have uniform rules in these matters, so that road traffic could mesh smoothly and without difficulty. Any maverick road owner who insisted on a left-hand drive or green for "stop" instead of "go" would soon find himself with numerous accidents, and the disappearance of customers and users. The private railroads in nineteenth-century America faced similar problems and solved them harmoniously and without difficulty. Railroads allowed each other’s cars on their tracks; they inter-connected with each other for mutual benefit; the gauges of the different railroads were adjusted to be uniform; and uniform regional freight classifications were worked out for 6,000 items. Furthermore, it was the railroads and not government that took the initiative to consolidate the unruly and chaotic patchwork of time zones that had existed previously. In order to have accurate scheduling and timetables, the railroads had to consolidate; and in 1883 they agreed to consolidate the existing fifty-four time zones across the country into the four which we have today. The New York financial paper, the Commercial and Financial Chronicle, exclaimed that "the laws of trade and the instinct for self-preservation effect reforms and improvements that all the legislative bodies combined could not accomplish."3

3. See Edward C. Kirkland, Industry Comes of Age: Business, Labor, and Public Policy, 1860-1897 (New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1961), pp. 48-50.

Rothbard the Urbanist Part 3: Prevention of Blockades

In the last post, we discussed the first paragraphs of chapter 11 of Murray Rothbard’s For A New Liberty. (available free from as pdf, web page, and audio book) Those paragraphs discussed the private ownership of all land, including streets and roads. Rothbard clearly and concisely argues that private ownership of streets would result in safer public spaces.

Discussions I have had with people often lead to the topic of forestalling, in which a sinister land owner decides to completely surround a neighbor’s property, preventing him from using it. This valid concern can be eased through a principled analysis of such a situation:

At this point in the discussion, someone is bound to raise the question: If streets are owned by street companies, and granting that they generally would aim to please their customers with maximum efficiency, what if some kooky or tyrannical street owner should suddenly decide to block access to his street to an adjoining homeowner? How could the latter get in or out? Could he be blocked permanently, or be charged an enormous amount to be allowed entrance or exit? The answer to this question is the same as to a similar problem about land-ownership: Suppose that everyone owning homes surrounding someone’s property would suddenly not allow him to go in or out? The answer is that [p. 204] everyone, in purchasing homes or street service in a libertarian society, would make sure that the purchase or lease contract provides full access for whatever term of years is specified. With this sort of “easement” provided in advance by contract, no such sudden blockade would be allowed, since it would be an invasion of the property right of the landowner.

A likely solution to this issue of forestalling, would be the emergence of “access insurance”. This would be similar to title insurance, which is a system that emerged as a result of the United States system of document recording “in which no governmental official makes any determination of who owns the title or whether the instruments transferring it are valid.” The US system seems anarchic, but the Title Insurance system emerged through the marketplace.

Such a system of “access insurance” would likely emerge to become as universal as the title insurance system, and likely be required by lenders. A buyer of a property would purchase insurance to ensure that access to the property would not be denied by any parties. If some neighbor decides to invade the property rights of the insured by blockading him in, the “access insurance” company would have to compensate the policy holder for the full value of the property (or other amount insured). Thus, the heavily capitalized insurance company has every incentive to use its vast resources to prevent such an event from occurring to defend the property from blockades.

Rothbard the Urbanist Part 2: Safe Streets

The recent post, Public Education’s Role in Sprawl and Exclusion generated some interest and fantastic comments.   I recommend reading Murray Rothbard’s For a New Liberty in its entirety.  It is elegant in its consistently radical application of principles.  It is available for free from the Mises Institute as a pdf, and webpage.  I listened to the audio book version superbly read by Jeff Riggenbach.

It turns out the entire Chapter 11  called “The Public Sector, II: Streets and Roads” is actually a chapter on Market Urbanism. Bryan Caplan considers this chapter “the least convincing chapter in the book”, but as a Market Urbanist, I strongly disagree.  I do admit that his discussion of safety and policing of private local streets involves a great deal of speculation and reliance on faith in the action of individual agents, but the insights into road subsidization and land-use patterns was decades ahead of its time.  These insights may not seem so radical now, but imagine the resistance to these ideas in the days before urbanism gained much credibility.

I decided it would be valuable to share a thorough parsing of the chapter.  I checked with the Mises Institute, who informed me that I am welcome to quote large pieces of text directly from the book – so I will.  Over the next few weeks I’ll share parts of Chapter 11 for discussion.  Feel free to read ahead…

In response to the first Rothbard post, Bill Nelson commented:

That said, I think that Professor Rothbard unfortunately only sees what he wants to see through his “Austrian” lens, and is therefore missing other reasons why “poor” people are not welcome in the suburbs — or anywhere else. Specifically, most home owners are interested in keeping out not poor people — but instead people with sociopathic behavior — which is more common among people who are less well-off.

I responded that Rothbard has more to say on that topic.  In fact, as you’ll soon see, he has a lot to say on safety.  (Keep in mind that Rothbard wrote For A New Liberty back in the 1970s, prior to Times Square’s rejuvenation.  A lot has changed since then…)

Chapter 11: The Public Sector, II: Streets and Roads
Protecting the Streets

Abolition of the public sector means, of course, that all pieces of land, all land areas, including streets and roads, would be owned privately, by individuals, corporations, cooperatives, or any other voluntary groupings of individuals and capital. The fact that all streets and land areas would be private would by itself solve many of the seemingly insoluble problems of private operation. What we need to do is to reorient our thinking to consider a world in which all land areas are privately owned. Let us take, for example, police protection. How would police protection be furnished in a totally private economy? Part of the answer becomes evident if we consider a world of totally private land and street ownership. Consider the Times Square area of New York City, a notoriously crime-ridden area where there is little police protection furnished by the city authorities. Every New Yorker knows, in fact, that he lives and walks the streets, and not only Times Square, virtually in a state of “anarchy,” dependent solely on the normal peacefulness and good will of his fellow citizens. Police protection in New York is minimal, a fact dramatically revealed in a recent week-long police strike when, lo and behold!, crime in no way increased from its normal state when the police are supposedly alert and on the job. At any rate, suppose that the Times Square area, including the streets, was privately owned, [p. 202] say by the “Times Square Merchants Association.” The merchants would know full well, of course, that if crime was rampant in their area, if muggings and holdups abounded, then their customers would fade away and would patronize competing areas and neighborhoods. Hence, it would be to the economic interest of the merchants’ association to supply efficient and plentiful police protection, so that customers would be attracted to, rather than repelled from, their neighborhood. Private business, after all, is always trying to attract and keep its customers. But what good would be served by attractive store displays and packaging, pleasant lighting and courteous service, if the customers may be robbed or assaulted if they walk through the area?

The merchants’ association, furthermore, would be induced, by their drive for profits and for avoiding losses, to supply not only sufficient police protection but also courteous and pleasant protection. Governmental police have not only no incentive to be efficient or worry about their “customers'” needs; they also live with the ever-present temptation to wield their power of force in a brutal and coercive manner. “Police brutality” is a well-known feature of the police system, and it is held in check only by remote complaints of the harassed citizenry. But if the private merchants’ police should yield to the temptation of brutalizing the merchants’ customers, those customers will quickly disappear and go elsewhere. Hence, the merchants’ association will see to it that its police are courteous as well as plentiful.

Rothbard then goes on to describe two hypothetical ways private ownership would lead to safer streets – through joint ownership or management of city blocks, or ownership of the streets themselves by private operators:

Such efficient and high-quality police protection would prevail throughout the land, throughout all the private streets and land areas. Factories would guard their street areas, merchants their streets, and road companies would provide safe and efficient police protection for their toll roads and other privately owned roads. The same would be true for residential neighborhoods. We can envision two possible types of private street ownership in such neighborhoods. In one type, all the landowners in a certain block might become the joint owners of that block, let us say as the “85th St. Block Company.” This company would then provide police protection, the costs being paid either by the home-owners directly or out of tenants’ rent if the street includes rental apartments. Again, homeowners will of course have a direct interest in seeing that their block is safe, while landlords will try to attract tenants by supplying safe streets in addition to the more usual services such as heat, water, and janitorial service. To ask why landlords should provide safe streets in the libertarian, fully private society is just as silly as asking now why they should provide their tenants with heat or hot [p. 203] water. The force of competition and of consumer demand would make them supply such services. Furthermore, whether we are considering homeowners or rental housing, in either case the capital value of the land and the house will be a function of the safety of the street as well as of the other well-known characteristics of the house and the neighborhood. Safe and well-patrolled streets will raise the value of the landowners’ land and houses in the same way as well-tended houses do; crime-ridden streets will lower the value of the land and houses as surely as dilapidated housing itself does. Since landowners always prefer higher to lower market values for their property, there is a built-in incentive to provide efficient, well -paved, and safe streets.

Another type of private street-ownership in residential areas might be private street companies, which would own only the streets, not the houses or buildings on them. The street companies would then charge landowners for the service of maintaining, improving, and policing their streets. Once again, safe, well-lit, and well-paved streets will induce landowners and tenants to flock to those streets; unsafe, badly lit and badly maintained streets will drive those owners and users away. A happy and flourishing use of the streets by landlords and automobiles will raise the profits and stock values of the street companies; an unhappy and decaying regard for streets by their owners will drive the users away and lower the profits and the stock values of the private street companies. Hence, the street-owning companies will do their best to provide efficient street service, including police protection, to secure happy users; they will be driven to do this by their desire to make profits and to increase the value of their capital, and by their equally active desire not to suffer losses and erosion of their capital. It is infinitely better to rely on the pursuit of economic interest by landowners or street companies than to depend on the dubious “altruism” of bureaucrats and government officials.

I think it is easy to mistake Rothbard’s vision as some sort of privately-run pseudo-police state, clashing with Jane Jacobs’ vibrant public spaces.  Keep in mind that this was written in the 1970’s – when crime was at its peak in New York and many other cities.  But, as Jane Jacobs taught us, diverse, vibrant street life provides “eyes on the street” – a no-cost security measure.  As a commercial benefit, streets with high foot traffic also enable higher-rent ground-floor retail.  So, I think it’s important to add to Rothbard’s discussion of safety that a well-run block or street would be wise to encourage pedestrian-activated streets as both a cost reducing and revenue increasing measure.  Publicly-run streets lack this natural incentive.

Note: Rothbard does mention Jane Jacobs on page 247 in an unrelated chapter.

Stay tuned for more of this series. Feel free to read ahead or listen to the audio version of the chapter

Block vs Poole: The Public-Private Partnership Debate

The Orange County Register’s Freedom Politics website (check out my rent control article FreePo published in March) features articles discussing two differing takes on road privatization from notable scholars Walter Block and Robert Poole.

In Robert Poole’s article, he discusses the merits of the increasingly popular use of Public-Private Partnerships (PPP) to fund and operate roadways:

Four potential benefits are particularly important:

  1. Fewer Boondoggles: Elected officials often champion projects that yield political benefits but have costs greater than their benefits. But with PPP toll projects, nobody will invest unless the benefits exceed the costs to the extent that they can project a positive return on their investment. That’s a powerful safeguard against boondoggles.
  2. Avoiding “Big Dig” Disasters: Large-scale “mega-projects” like Boston’s notorious Big Dig are prone to large cost over-runs and schedule delays. In a well-structured PPP project, those risks can be transferred to the private sector, shielding taxpayers from those costs.
  3. Cost Minimization: Traditional highway projects are built by the lowest-bidder, which often means they are built cheaply and need lots of expensive maintenance over their lifetimes. But a PPP toll highway must be maintained for decades at the private company’s expense. Hence, it has every incentive to build it right to begin with, to minimize total life-cycle cost.
  4. Sustainable Congestion Relief: If you add ordinary freeway lanes, they tend to fill up and become congested. But today’s urban toll lanes use variable pricing (as on the 91 Express Lanes) to keep traffic flowing smoothly on a long-term basis.

In contrast, Walter Block takes a more principled stand for complete privatization:

Public – private partnerships (PPP) are thus part and parcel of both fascism and socialism; they constitute a partial state ownership of the means of production. As well, they are emblematic of fascism, and government is the senior partner, and its regulations still determine the actions of these public – private partnerships.

Block has dedicated a chapter in his new book, The Privatization of Roads and Highways: Human and Economic Factors to a critique of Public-Private Partnerships.  I haven’t read it yet, but hope to share some of the insights when I do.

This is a concept I have been debating in my head for a while.  Are public-private efforts towards privatization really a step in the right direction towards liberalizing the transportation system, or are they just a form of corporatism that enable governments to bail themselves out of their fiscal crises?  Should we hold out for Block’s ideal, yet unlikely, complete private overhaul, or hope for gradual, yet inevitably incomplete liberalization with PPPs as the first necessary step?

What are your thoughts?  Have any readers read Block’s critique of Public-Private Partnerships?  (a pdf version of the book is offered free from the Mises Institute)

20/20 Segment on Private Roads (& Some things to ponder while in traffic)

Some other things to ponder for the next time you are sitting on a congested highway…

When I talk to people about tolling roads, most people immediately reject the idea entirely.  I like to ask them to think about it next time they are in a traffic jam.  Hey, if you sit in traffic, you probably spend a lot of time thinking…  So, next time you are waiting for the car ahead of them to move, think of what dollar amount you would be willing to pay to avoid the traffic jam in order to get to your destination. 

Then, think of waiting in a long bread line, as if the only source of food were free government bread.  Obviously, the bread is underpriced.  How much would you be willing to pay for a loaf of bread to avoid the line?  Recall the price you were willing to pay to avoid traffic and ask yourself whether roads are priced correctly. 

Interestingly, almost all people are fully willing to pay for bread, a staple of life, while we tend to think of roads as “too important to leave to private companies.”  So from now on, think of a bread line every time you are sitting in traffic.

After a few commutes, you might be ready for some more thinking on the subject.  Once you’ve learned to recognize the socialism of the highways, think about how tolled roads might affect where you decide to live.  Would you live further away from your destination, and gladly pay for a congestion-free commute?  Or would you choose to live closer to work, to pay less in tolls? 

Now, keeping in mind that most highways are congestion-free when they are originally built, ponder how socialized roads effect living patterns.  Had roads been priced properly, would the outlying areas of your metropolitan area have developed as they did?

Yes, Virginia, government roads really are government subsidized, and no, they don’t approximate freed-market outcomes

Recently, I came accross an article by Charles Johnson, who blogs at Rad Geek.  The article had linked to a Market Urbanism post about how user fees and gas taxes fall well short of funding road use in the US. Charles’ article further debunks the Urbanism Legend asserted by free-market imposters that a free-market highway system would be similar to the system we see today.
I like the post so much that I asked Charles about posting it at Market Urbanism.  Charles requested that I, “indicate that the post is freely available for reprinting and derivative use under the terms of the
Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 1.0 license.” I am happy to comply, and must admit that I haven’t taken the time to acquaint myself with Creative Commons.  So, here it is, in it’s original form, and feel free to read the comments in the link:

Yes, Virginia, government roads really are government subsidized, and no, they don’t approximate freed-market outcomes

by Charles Johnson,

When left-libertarians argue with more conventionally pro-capitalist libertarians about economics, one of the issues that often comes up is government control over roads, and the ways in which state and federal government’s control over roads has acted as a large subsidy for economic centralization and national-scale production and distribution networks (and thus, to large-scale “big box” retailers, like Wal-Mart or Best Buy, dependent on the crafty arrangement of large-scale cross-country shipping as a basic part of their business model). People who have a problem with this analysis sometimes try to dispute it by arguing that government roads aren’t actually subsidized — that heavy users of government roads are actually getting something that roughly approximates a freed-market outcome, because users of government roads pay for the roads they get, in proportion to how heavily they use them, because government roads are funded by gasoline taxes, tire taxes, and government-imposed licensing fees, which all go up in cost more or less proportionally to increases in use of government roads. Thus (the argument goes), funding for government roads is more like a fee-for-service transaction on a freed market than it’s like a classic case of government subsidies. But in fact, this argument is completely bogus, for at least three reasons.

The first reason is that, contrary to popular misconception, government-imposed gasoline taxes and “user fees” on road users do not actually fully fund the costs of government road-building and maintenance; government funding of roads actually includes a substantial subsidy extracted from taxpayers independently of their usage of the roads. Government budgets for road building and maintenance in the US draw from general funds as well as from earmarked gas taxes and “user fees”, and those budgets are subsidized by state, local, and federal government to the tune of about 20–70 cents per gallon of gasoline expended.

The second reason, which ought to be obvious to libertarians given how much we have talked about the use of eminent domain over the past few years, is that government road-building is substantially subsidized by the fact that government can — and routinely does — use the power of eminent domain to seize large, contiguous stretches of land for road building at arbitrarily fixed rates below what the land-owners could have demanded in a free market land sale. Even if it were the case (as it is not) that usage-based levies like gasoline taxes and government licensing fees were enough to cover the budget for government road building and maintenance, that budget has already had a massive, unmentioned government subsidy factored into it due to the use of eminent domain.

The third reason is that a freed market is able to match the supply for roads to the demand at something like the appropriate cost not only because people pay for the roads in proportion to their use of the roads, but also because the prices for road use are set by negotiations between road users and road builders in a competitive market, and because the ownership and management patterns of roads are determined by patterns of free economic decisions to buy, sell, lease, develop, abandon, reclaim, and subdivide land. Freed markets aren’t just a matter of paying for what you get (as important as that is); they also have to do with the freedom to get what you get by alternative means, and with patterns of ownership and control based on consensual negotiation rather than on force. No matter how roads are funded, there is no way to approximate freed-market results with government monopoly on sales or politically-determined allocation of ownership. (Again, this is something that ought to be obvious; it is just the socialist calculation problem applied to the market for road transportation.)

And roads funded by government-imposed gasoline taxes will always be either noncompetitive or subsidized: if there were any significant private roads competing with roads funded by government gasoline taxes, the taxes on the gasoline that drivers burn on those roads become a subsidy to the government-controlled roads. The more users use the non-government roads, the more they would be subsidizing the government roads.

Further, the ownership and management patterns of government roads are determined by electoral horse-trading and arbitrary political jurisdictions, not by free economic actors. As a result, decisions about what roads to build, how to direct funds to those roads, how to price the use of those roads, etc. are typically made by state or federal legislatures, or state or federal executive bureaus. Governments are far more responsive to political than to economic pressure; governments generally will not, or cannot, sell off roads or spin off control over local roads to the people who use them most and can best manage them; state and federal governments exercise centralized control over far larger fiefs than it would ever be possible or profitable to amass on a free market. Thus, for example, because the building and maintenance of roads in Las Vegas is controlled, not by free market actors in Las Vegas, but rather by the Nevada state government, we have Las Vegas drivers paying in 70% of the state’s gas taxes and getting back only 61% of the state’s spending on roads (which is an increase over the 2003–07 average of 53%) — meaning that we are forced to turn tens of millions of dollars over to subsidizing highway building and maintenance in the rest of Nevada. Here’s NDOT’s reasoning as to why we should get stuck with the bill:

If NDOT based its road building program strictly on usage, [NDOT assistant director of engineering Kent] Cooper said, then no new highways would be built outside of Clark County.

He noted that freeways in Las Vegas attract 150,000 to more than 200,000 vehicles a day. No other area in the state has such high use.

Ed Vogel, Las Vegas Review-Journal (2008-11-26): Southern Nevadans get less bang for their road tax buck

Now, maybe Kent Cooper thinks that it is just and wise to force Las Vegas drivers to pay tens of millions of dollars in subsidies so that NDOT can build expensive roads that nobody wants to use.

Maybe he’s right about that, and maybe he’s wrong. But whatever the case may be, the only way to get freed market results in roads is by freeing the market. Under government ownership, government funding, and government control, roads are subsidized by taxes that are levied independently of road usage, built using a subsidy created by forced seizure of land, and users of high-volume local roads are typically forced to subsidize expensive, long-distance cross-country roads that they aren’t using. This kind of allocation of resources for long-distance, non-local highways — which further distorts an already subsidy-distorted system by distorting the flow of money within that system away from the heavily-used local roads and into the high-cost, high maintenance long-distance roads, can certainly not be called any kind of approximation of a freed market in roads.

© by Charles Johnson
This post is freely available for reprinting and derivative use under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 1.0 license.