King of the Road

What's up with groups that argue for less government but see publicly built highways as an expression of the free market?
by | April 1, 2008

The ancient Romans had a saying: To make a road straight, you need to make someone's neck crooked.

This chilling refrain is a vivid summing up of an obvious fact: Building a road is a manifestation of power, particularly state power. Carving a road across multiple jurisdictions and property lines -- not to mention varying terrain -- can be done only by an institution that can override the wishes of any one individual.

This was true in the days of the Roman Empire, when mighty roads were built so well that many of them still exist. And it's true today. In the exercise of that authority, local, state and federal governments spent more than $150 billion on roads in 2005, according to the most recent federal Highway Statistics report. That's comparable to what we spend annually on waging war in Iraq.

Given all this, I find it exceedingly strange that a group of conservative and libertarian-oriented think tanks -- groups that argue for less government -- have embraced highways and roads as a solution to traffic congestion and a general boon to living. In the same breath, they usually attack mass-transit spending, particularly on trains. They seem to see a highway as an expression of the free market and of American individualism, and a rail line as an example of government meddling and creeping socialism.

Among the most active of these groups is the Reason Foundation, a self-described libertarian nonprofit organization with a $7 million budget that has its own transportation wing. Some typical highway-oriented papers on Reason's Web site include "How to Build Our Way Out of Congestion" and "Private Tollways: How States Can Leverage Federal Highway Funds." Rail transit is taken on in papers with titles such as "Myths of Light Rail Transit," and "Rethinking Transit 'Dollars & Sense': Unearthing the True Cost of Public Transit." I didn't see any papers about unearthing the true cost of our public highway network.

Many of the authors of these studies are a rotating castof writers who pop up again and again, including RandalO'Toole and Wendell Cox. They "extol the autonomy made possible by automobiles" wrote fellow libertarian and New York Times columnist John Tierney in a 2004 article on the subject. Tierney calls them, including himself, "the autonomists." That is, libertarians who have embraced highway spending, although they focus more on the individually-bought car, not the government-built road it requires.

Reason Foundation's founder and former president, Robert Poole, leads the group's Transportation Studies wing, and it's clear he has a special love of the subject. He has authored many studies himself, and he puts out the Surface Transportation Innovations newsletter. In an interview, I ask him to square Reason Foundation's support for roads with its general dislike of government involvement.

"I'd never thought about it that way," he says. Poole insists Reason doesn't want to eliminate government from transportation. "We aren't going to have competing companies putting roads in where they like, and letting the chips fall where they may. We aren't anarchists."

But the organization does have a general premise, which, Poole says, "is that transportation infrastructure would work better if it were market-driven. Where it's possible, that infrastructure should be run in a business-like manner with users paying full cost."

All of this sounds good but is essentially incorrect. Transportation is like education: It works best through heavy general funding that pays off down the road in a community's or nation's overall prosperity. Our national road system would never have been built if every street were required to pay for itself.

Governments at every level have put in several trillion dollars' worth of roads over the past century. This system, open to all with a car, has created our automobile-based landscape of suburbs, single-family homes, office parks, mega churches and shopping malls. Love it or hate it, it is the product of massive government spending. As others have pointed out, the national road system is one of the most successful examples of pure socialism to be found: a comprehensive public system, well-used, almost entirely paid for with tax dollars.

Some of Reason's transportation ideas, such as truck-only toll lanes and congestion pricing, are worth considering. But the systematic bias in favor of roads and against mass transit makes the foundation's work suspect. City and state officials, who are frequently confronted with its studies, should view the work skeptically.

Alex Marshall
Alex Marshall  |  columnist
alex@rpa.org  | 

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