Government Spending Taking Politics Out of Transportation—Economist Bruce Benson on Private Roads


Americans are accustomed to government provided roads, but "a private road system is going to get you from here to there more efficiently, and with less congestion," says Bruce Benson, a professor of economics at Florida State University. sat down with Benson during the Libertopia festival in Hollywood, California to discuss the limitless possibilities of private road construction.

Drawing on his research on private alternatives to pubic provision of services such as road construction and law enforcement, Benson points to America's long history of roads that were privately built by communities that wanted to connect into a system of trade. Benson predicts a return of privately built roads as our congested public infrastructure continues to degrade.

Approximately 6.5 minutes.

Interviewed by Zach Weissmueller.  Camera and Editing by Hawk Jensen; animation by Austin Bragg.

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  1. From the June 2009 Grand Isle (LA) Island Beacon. They don’t have a website, I get it via USPS.

    Elmer’s Island
    800 visitors traveled to Elmer’s Island over the Fourth of July weekend as the state Department of Wildlife and Fisheries opened access there for the first time in nearly a decaded.The island had been a commercial campground and fishing area for 30 years. But public access via a marshland road was denied after th death of the road’s owner. the opening of the road followed a title search that the state says determined the area is Louisiana property.

    1. Access to the road was denied after the owner died? Access to my house wouldn’t be denied after I passed, I’m pretty sure. Why didn’t his next of kin take ownership of the road and reopen it? Who was responsible for the road after he died?

      1. That’s really the point here. When roads are privately owned, there can arise, inter alia, legal entanglements that keep the road closed, in this case for nearly a decade.

        1. Nothing prevented the building of another road without the entanglements.

          1. We’re talking about islands here. There really were no other options.

            1. If you can drive to it, its not a fucking island. I didnt see any mention of bridge or chunnel.

              1. found it on a map. Looks like it probably technically qualifies as an island, as there is a part where the road disappears, you drive thru some water and then the road starts on the other side again.

                1. Fishing I can see, but campground, ugh. I dont get Louisiana.

                2. Good work!

              2. Let me help you here. The name of the place in question is Elmer’s Island. It is separated from Grand Isle. Google map “Elmer’s Island, LA”. Then zoom in a bit and chose the “Satellite” view. It is easy to see that there is no other way to get there as it’s in the the Gulf of Mexico.

                1. Um…what did you think I meant by “found it on a map”?

                  That was the exact procedure?

                  its a tidal blech, not an island in any real sense of the word.

        2. Inter alia? Geesh.

          1. Well then next time, just for you, I’ll go with “in fucking addition to”.

            1. Looking forward to it.

            2. aha,Strongly support you, go on

        3. Who the fuck cares? What a stupid example.

    2. Re: No Private Roads, Thank You,

      And so one single anecdote is sufficient argument against private ownership. Thank you, Jesus!

  2. Congrats to Reason for getting Bruce into a suit 🙂

  3. Reason sure does love its science fiction!!!!!

  4. Roads are for losers. Flying cars are the libertarian goal.


      I want jetpacks. Kickass jetpacks.

      1. Just don’t build one with plans off the internet. Mysthbusters totally busted that one, even though Adam really, really wanted it to work.

      2. Unfortunately, we are much closer to flying cars than we are to practical jet packs.

    2. Then we would really find out how safe flying is.

  5. The idea that we can have six different roads from New York to Chicago, each one catering to a different public, is really, uh, visionary. And I love the idea that ever two blocks that i drive on a local road, there will be a different speed limit and a different two-bit fake cop telling me I’m not allowed in his neighborhood. Libertarianism is awesome

    1. In Soviet Union, troll feeds you!

    2. There are at least 4 different “reasonable” routes via interstate (with some overlap) and Im sure just as many using US Highways.

      1. I’m curious what routes you found on interstates. The shortest route is I-80 all the way through NJ, PA, OH, and IN…and any other interstate route that doesn’t overlap with that one most of the way is going to add at least 200 miles to the trip.

        1. I80 is the primary, 13 hours on google maps.

          I70 thru Columbus and Indy is 14 hours.

          I90 thru Buffalo and Columbus was 15.

          Buffalo and Flint, crossing Canada was 16.

          1. Buffalo and Cleveland, not Buffalo and Columbus for the I90 route.

          2. Slick rounding, robc. No route through Buffalo and Columbus would make sense, so I assume you meant Buffalo and Cleveland.

            I80 – 12:44, 790 mi
            I95/I70/I65 – 14:30, 890 mi
            I87/I90/I80 – 16:13, 965 mi
            I87/I90/Canada/I94 – 17:06, 979 mi + customs twice

            1. wow, your times are radically different from mine. WTF site did you use?

              1. I only rounded one of mine more than about 20 minutes, to get those numbers.

                1. The difference between the shortest and second shortest is nearly two hours, but you rounded them so that the difference appeared to be only one.

            2. I get 15:15 for Buffalo/Cleveland and 16:13 across Canada.

              Oh, I see the difference, I81 north, not I87

      2. And no one travels from New York to Chicago on US highways anymore. Seriously.

        1. There are 3 reasonable (much more reasonable than the alternates for NY->Chi) ways from Louisville to Atlanta. I do that trip a lot and have done all 3. All 3 involve I75 to Atlanta from Chattanooga, its getting to ‘nooga from Louisville that is tricky.

          Primary: I65->I24->I75, thru Nashville
          Secondary: I64->I75, thru Lexington
          Tertiary: I65 to just before Bowling Green, back roads in a strait line to Chattanooga thru KY and TN, then I75 south again.

          The difference is only 25 minutes between the 3. My grandparents basically lived along the 3rd one, which is why I did it a couple of times back in the 80s.

          1. Point being, while NYC to Chicago has a clear cut winner, other city combos dont, and interstates arent always the winner.

            1. Louisville and Atlanta aren’t that far apart.

        2. People who dont like interstates and arent interested in minimizing time do.

          Ive considered driving US60 some day. It tracks I64 which is the most miserable road ever, but US60 is nice at parts.

        3. You are seriously wrong!

      3. Most interstates aside from ones like Chicago to New York were completely redundant and unnecessary when we already had state and U.S. highways, often directly paralleling the interstate.

        1. Have you been on a highway in the past 50 years, Angus? The existing highways weren’t limited access and thus much slower.

    3. Yeah, the private road I live on is soooooooo complicated! The same speed limits, signage, and construction as all the public roads in our area!

      It’s HORRRRRRRIBLE!!!!!!1! Especially the Special Police Unit with its jetpacks…

      1. So you already have the jetpacks. Why the bogarting?

        1. Selfish, child-killing, monocle-wearing, old-people-in-the-streets libertarian reasons, K

      2. How long is your private road? Where can you travel on that private road without using the public road system?

        1. Cant speak for Almanian, but when I had one, I could visit ~200 different households via the private road. And at least 1 business (my neighbor ran a newspaper delivery business out of his 2nd garage).

        2. Long enough to get the Ninja into top gear and still stop before I hit something immovable.

    4. Unlike public roads where the speed limit changes at whim of the local muncipality. Try driving around Texas on FM roads and tell me about random speed limit changes and two-bit cops.

      1. This – what Brett L said, for Ohio. Fuckers…

        I like my private road with the jetpack death cops…I speed. A lot.

      2. So you too are aware of the 70 to 60 to 55 to 50 to 45 to 40 to 45 to 55 to 65 to 70 mph stretch of 3 miles, eh? Driving to CS from Dallas is… an adventure.

  6. Ok, they finally put up a roads post, where the fuck is Old Mexican?

  7. Benson predicts a return of privately built roads as our congested public infrastructure continues to degrade.

    Billionaires zipping along on nearly empty private toll roads in their Ferraris and Maybachs, while the poor ride teetering overloaded donkey carts on muddy wagon tracks.

    Just like Somalia.

    1. Somalia has billionaires?

  8. No one’s done it yet! So…


    1. Adn thank you for that!

    2. Hey, Reason developers, I find an edge case you missed. ^

      1. find == found

        Clearly we need some liberals to force us to use the preview button before we are allowed to submit – for our own good of course.

  9. Somalia has billionaires?

    You peeked!

  10. My old (I moved 3 years ago) condo complex HOA owned the roads within our complex. It was exactly like Somalia. Exactly.

  11. When roads are privately owned, there can arise, inter alia, legal entanglements that keep the road closed, in this case for nearly a decade.

    I think we learn more about record-keeping in Louisiana than about the scary unforeseen hazards of privately owned roads from this little tale

  12. We’re talking about islands here. There really were no other options.

    There are boats with large flat decks, capable of transporting automobiles across water. Perhaps you’ve heard of them.
    We call them “ferries”.

    1. From google maps, this island is a “beach” separated from the mainland by a ditch. At one point, a offshoot of the ditch cuts thru the road, technically making it an “island”. I think a car that can handle a foot of water is what is required.

      1. Thank you for illustrating the point where pragmatic and dogmatic libertarianism split paths. You would require either ferry service (which will never turn a profit) or restrictions on which vehicles can travel to the island, all just to be able to say that there are no public roads.

        1. The restriction on cars applies to the public road.

        2. So exactly what did I demonstrate again?

          Whether the road is public or private, the same vehicle restriction applies.

          And realistically, with a couple of dumptrucks of gravel, a new shorter road could have been built (not sure on property lines, so dont know where a public road could be built — of course, as it turned out, the road was on LA land all along).

          1. with a couple of dumptrucks of gravel

            WHOA, WHOA, WHOA, THERE, ROBC! Gonna have to have the US Army Corps of Engineers take a look at this – environmental impact, bedrock stability, beach erosion, commerce clause – you know.

            So, that’ll be about….90 years from now.

            In the meantime, injuction stayed, land reverts to the state – NEXT CASE!!!

  13. Private roads are fairly common. There is well established case law for it regarding right of ways and stuff. People who think you need to pay a toll every five feet are being stupid. No one would drive on such a road! Duh!

    I have 1% ownership in a private road. It is the road that makes a loop in my condo complex. It is indeed a road. We maintain it in better shape than the public road it connects to. There are no toll booths, that would be stupid.

    Do you pay a toll for every router your email travels across? Of course not! You only pay for the initial access. Why do you expect residential roads to be any different?

    1. We didnt even have guards to keep people off our roads. No toll booths, no guards, I dont know how we made a profit!

      1. Easy. There was a sign. Everybody knows signs are more official. Nobody thinks of the person that creates a sign. They just obey.

    2. I’m curious, how do you pay for the upkeep?

      “””There are no toll booths, that would be stupid.””

      Who does toll booths anymore? It will be high speed easy pass.

      There is a difference between private roads in neighborhoods funded by the people who live there and private roads owned by people expecting to make a profit. Not saying profit is bad, just that the motivation between the two is different.

      1. It was from my HOA fees. Duh.

        The point is, private roads exist now and do just fine. Motivation is none of your business.

        1. “”The point is, private roads exist now and do just fine.””

          In neighborhoods where people passing through are not charged. Your example is not apt when applied to long distance trips by the general public.

          “”Motivation is none of your business.””

          Who’s asking? I just said they were different.

          1. My example is apt for private roads. Long distance roads need different examples.

            Notice that most of the video talked about neighborhood roads.

            But, is it I90 across Indiana that is “private”? Privitized, I guess. There is a long distance example. And a key part of that NYC to Chicago trip too.

            1. Are you a libertarian or a privatization fetishist? Private monopolies are not much better than direct government operation, and frequently worse.

              1. There is a reason I put “private” in quotes like that.

                I would prefer it be truly private, but generally, under the right circumstances, I think privitization is a step in the right direction.

                My mini city doesnt run their own garbage pick up, they pay a company to do it. Better yet would be cut my taxes and let me buy it myself, but I still prefer “privitization” to “city run”.

            2. I’m not against the idea as a whole. I’m just not convinced it’s better at this time. It would depend on the details. Having experience with NJ and NY tolls, the MTA, and the Port Authority of NY/NJ, I’m shy on the idea.

              If roads went private, I would want to see competition and have the ability to choose quick routes between places, not my way or back roads. Trying to have competition on roads creates problems on it’s own.

              1. I want the same from public roads. But I aint getting it from the state either.

                1. Then stop being a pussy and do things on your own. If you don’t like the roads, then drive through the lakes.

    3. Do you pay a toll for every router your email travels across? Of course not! You only pay for the initial access. Why do you expect residential roads to be any different?

      Don’t make me go all Ted Stevens on your ass.

  14. does this boob think I-90 was going to cross wyoming into idaho and then go north to montana or what? it makes sense he’s from montana where nights are long and sheep are scared.

    1. I think he thought I94 was enough for Montana and I90 would skip it altogether and just head to Oregon directly.

    2. I too am confused about what route he thinks I-90 should have taken. The straight line route from northeastern Wyoming to Seattle goes through Montana too.

      If he’s saying it should have avoided Wyoming altogether, then his insinuation that Montana’s powerful senators had it moved makes no sense.

      1. I think he is suggesting that Jackson/Idaho Falls/Boise was more direct than ticking up to Billings.

        But then I think 94 crosses the rest of Montana on the path that 90 took anyway. 90 from Boise would have probably followed the current path of 84 into Portland.

        1. Maybe they didn’t want to build two interstate highways across Idaho. Portland wasn’t nearly as big back then.

          1. I agree, but you asked the question. I answered it by drawing a roughly straight line to the coast.

            The biggest mistake I think the Interstate system made was going thru cities at all. Most big cities have a “loop” road of some kind, the interstates should have hit them at a tangent. If cities wanted high access roads to downtown, they could build them themselves.

            1. I suspect many of the interstates originally went along the edges of cities, which have subsequently grown around the freeways.

              1. You know more than everybody else. Please educate them.

  15. Benson predicts a return of privately built roads as our congested public infrastructure continues to degrade.

    Only if we eat all the rent-seeking bureaucrats!

    Oh, uh, that would be pretty much, uh . . . ALL of them…

    Bon Appetit!

  16. Not a fan of the private road idea at this time. But I hope everyone understands that the lost of federal revenue will be made up some other way. Don’t think that just because the feds don’t have to foot the bill for road repair means we would be taxed less.

  17. Some questions for fellow Professor Benson:

    1. He goes on and on about “communities” owning roads. What precisely does he mean by “community”? If he’s talking about local governments, then those roads aren’t actually private. If he’s talking about some community organization independent from any government, where are they getting funding from?

    2. Competition, not privatization per se, is the heart and soul of libertarian economics and the reason for market systems’ more efficient performance. In order to have a competitive system of roads (rather than just a privatized one) you need to have finitely high barriers to entry. The examples he gives are of private interests taking over roads built by govt, which have very little in the way of redundancy; in order to have competition you need plausible options for new players to enter the market. The land those government roads were built on was either unoccupied at the time or acquired via eminent domain, so unless you’re building a road to nowhere or you’re going to authorize the use of eminent domain to get land for private road builders, there are no such plausible options.

    3. His dismissal of the gas tax as a means of funding road construction is completely unjustified. Whether the two are “linked in people’s minds” or not, the money does go into that pot, and yes, when the price of gas is as high as it is now, people do think twice about making unnecessary trips, especially those that will involve long periods of idling and wasting fuel.

    1. I assume #1 is something like an HOA.

      #3 isnt true. I would support gas tax as a “user fee” for roads, as its better than any other method, like tracking me, but in many places, it goes into the general fund, not into a Road Only – do not touch! fund.

      1. I seriously doubt there were HOAs involved during the past periods he mentions when private roads were more common, or in the city neighborhoods he mentions taking the streets back from the city govt.

        1. Hence me saying “something like a”.

          Basically, a neighborhood organization that owns the roads in partnership. I dont know if this was the case or not, but it seems reasonable. And that is very much like an HOA.

          1. Yes, but that difference is crucial. An HOA has a guaranteed revenue stream from assessments against its members. A less formal organization doesn’t have any reliable revenue stream, as each property owner is free to contribute or not.

    2. I doubt the feds would repeal the gas tax, they would rename it and you would still pay.

    3. Re: Tulpa,

      1. He goes on and on about “communities” owning roads. What precisely does he mean by “community”? […]

      Corporations are communities. Clubs are communities. A “community” that owns a road could be just the local yokels owning shares of the road, no need for government. The funding for a road can come from many places – people used to throw lotteries to fund projects during colonial times.

      2. Competition, not privatization per se, is the heart and soul of libertarian economics and the reason for market systems’ more efficient performance.

      No, you’re wrong, it IS private ownership. Competition is simply the result of action by various participants, but not the sine qua non of free-market economics.

      You can have the sole owner of a bridge which everybody uses, but he’s ALWAYS in competition with potential alternatives (boats, barges, floating roads, you name it) if he values his service too highly. Competition would be a result, not an originator.

      3. His dismissal of the gas tax as a means of funding road construction is completely unjustified.

      Of course, as long as people do not try to power their cars by steam – THEN it is completely unjustified.

      In a completely private system of ownership, nobody taxes, as such taxman would be tarred and feathered for being a damned thief, and deservedly so.

      1. You can’t have a functioning market without competition or at least the potential for competition. Again, this is where dogmatic and pragmatic libertarians part ways; a pragmatist like myself sees no benefit to being able to stand on the mountaintop and see no public roads as far as the eye can see, while you guys seem to have a more romantic outlook.

        Land-based travel cannot plausibly be replaced with air travel due to the latter’s high expense for short distances, and it can’t be replaced with water travel either in most places (and except for the most crowded places, ferrying people across rivers would never turn a profit).

    4. If roads were private, are you saying there would be no other travel options?

      1. If there were only one producer of meat in the US, it would be ridiculous to say that the protein market was competitive because people could still eat peanuts and beans for protein instead of meat.

  18. “private alternatives to pubic provision of services”

    As a fierce libertarian and a shy guy, I prefer all my pubic services be rendered in private.

    (Almost 3 hours of comments and yet I still get to be the guy to point it out? You guys are slow today.)

    1. Some of us are actually mature. I won’t name names.

    2. It’s all men. Libertarians are all men. Even the women who are libertarians are men.

  19. But, is it I90 across Indiana that is “private”? Privatized, I guess.

    The Indiana Tollway. It was a toll road when the state of Indiana ran it, and now it’s basically under a management lease, to Macquarie. Because the state said, “We’re too stupid to run this thing ourselves, and besides, we need cash NOW.”

  20. Libertarians are insane.

    1. Don’t worry, son. It’ll be the next dominant political party within two decades. They are the only party with republican beliefs that harbor liberal fantasy and commiseration.

      Remember the wigs?

      1. Men are inherently becoming more socially weakened.

  21. Thank God the Roads debate is over. Always with the god damn roads. “Well, sir, you seem to have a very plausible argument that is founded in reason… but let me ask you one question…. WHO pays for the ROADS?”

    The government pays for Roads, so why not everything else? Fuckin’ weasels.

    Anarchism’s worst nightmare is the fact that roads exist. I happen to believe in Free Market Ochlocracy, but Anarchism isn’t terribly far-fetched from my truest human philosophies.

    The real reality of the situation is that pure capitalism is actual anarchism. I’m not real sure where the socialists and such found root in anarchistic causes, but I know Karl Marx and the communists vehemently detested anarchist activity as trifle and trite.

    Anti-state socialists are a rare but ultimately surprising people. I see a railroad where two tracks lead into one direction.

    Militarism and government create war, which is bad for the people… so the socialists deplore war? but ultimately beg upon the very system to alleviate hunger. Who are we?

    Government is insanity to the modern world of free thinking people. How could the rules and regulations that are set forth be considered as official to men of higher thinking or even basic instinct?

    Who is the voice in your head that writes the form letters that eventually become law? Nobody is official.

    We’re all faced with three possibilities in life that depend greatly on one another but also lead us into realms forsaken by the crowd.

    Death- we care, until you’re dead. Game over, son. Hopefully it’s not me next.

    Insanity – we knew each other, but then the rest of you ceased to know.

    Deception – you always had the key to my heart, but you could never find the ignition. Step 2, then step 1 quickly ensued.

    In the entire compendium of human complexities… ban salt and fags– that just seems like the next right move.


  22. Well, thanks for that illuminating discussion on the utterly trivial 1% corner of the road market that might function fairly well under private ownership, or already does function fairly well under private ownership that isn’t even noticed except among that elite and restricted group of people who pay for it and their guests and occasionally lost folks who drive the road innocently enough and then leave without a lecture on how the rest of the nation ought to do it exactly as it is done here, despite a multitude of differences and despite the obvious fact that the existing system is considered excellent by all except those people–most of them the same people–who balance their acute awareness of what they pay for their own access with an intense ignorance of what they pay for all of the millions of other accesses they casually expect within the larger society.

    Judean People’s Front, only less effective and not funny.

    PS you don’t own 1% of the road. Don’t believe me? Name your price; I’ll bring a cashier’s check and a toll booth and we can contemplate the honking mob of pissed off former libertarians unwilling to pay their way.

    Another candidate for the Anals of Libertarian Snark:

    Do you pay a toll for every router your email travels across? Of course not! You only pay for the initial access. Why do you expect residential roads to be any different?

    Sure–sounds great. No toll booths to slow folks down. We’ll come up with an easy way to take the toll, then let market forces provide solutions to reconcile all the easy-pass systems and enforce them. Wait–I’ve got it! We’ll issue a highly visible, standardized but uniquely numbered placard that all paid-up vehicles must display. We’ll charge larger vehicles by weight, because weight is the key factor in degrading a road! Through economy of scale and elections we’ll encourage and maintain the most efficient and honest tax schemes in history, and tie it to use by taking some of the toll money at the point of purchase for fuel! We’ll create police forces with standardized procedures! Libertarian genius!

    Keep talking, kids. We’ll let you know.


  23. son points to America’s long history of roads that were privately built by communities that w

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