Government Spending

Fixing America's Freeways

The private sector is reinventing our expressways, one lane at a time.


If you work anywhere in America outside of New York City, chances are you drive to work. That means you battle congestion twice every weekday. Rest assured that it's not your imagination: traffic is much worse than it used to be. 

The Texas Transportation Institute (TTI), which has been measuring the cost of traffic congestion in wasted time and fuel for three decades, estimates that in current dollars the traffic penalty rose from $24 billion in 1982 to $115 billion in 2009 (the latest year for which complete data are available). The average urban commuter wastes 34 hours a year in rush-hour congestion today, compared with just 14 hours in 1982.

Those average figures reflect all 439 urban areas. But if you live and work in one of the 20 largest metropolitan areas, you're stuck in an even worse jam. In Los Angeles, the average commuter wastes 63 hours a year due to congestion. In Dallas/Ft. Worth, it's 48 hours a year. And in the Washington, D.C., area, it's a whopping 70—almost nine full working days that drivers could have back if only freeways and streets delivered motorists at the advertised speed.

Congestion does far more harm than simply wasting time and fuel. By reducing the area you can traverse in, say, 30 minutes, congestion shrinks your "opportunity circle" of jobs, entertainment, housing, and even dating. Economists find that reduced opportunity circles due to congestion inhibit the best matches between skilled workers and employers, reducing the economic productivity of congested urban areas. The chief economist at the U.S. Department of Transportation has estimated that the true annual economic cost of congestion is at least double the $115 billion figure noted above.

Why does congestion keep getting worse, and what can be done about it? While there is no single answer to either question, a principal reason for ever worse congestion is that the demand for road space (especially on urban freeways) greatly exceeds the supply. That's because after the initial burst of freeway building in the 1960s and '70s, additions to freeways slowed way down while population and economic growth continued apace. Some analysts liken the result to cramming 10 pounds of potatoes into a five-pound sack.

From 1984 to 2009, the TTI estimates, daily traffic on the freeway systems of America's 18 most congested metro areas increased by 142 percent while their capacity (measured in lane-miles) grew only half as much (72 percent). In most cases, that means freeways today are attempting to handle vastly more traffic than they were designed for. That also explains why "rush hour" in major metro areas today runs about three hours in the morning and another three or four hours in the evening.

Again, those are averages. A few metro areas, such as Houston, have expanded freeways much more than 72 percent. But others, such as Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Diego, and Minneapolis, have added only 25 percent to 30 percent more capacity. TTI's 2010 Urban Mobility Report cites a strong inverse correlation between capacity and congestion: In the 13 metro areas that have expanded freeway capacity nearly enough to keep pace with travel demand, congestion is only about one-third worse today than it was in 1982, while the 42 metro areas where the gap between demand and capacity was greatest ended up with congestion about 140 percent worse in 2010 than in 1982.

Building Our Way Out of Congestion

Given the enormous cost of congestion and its relentless increase during the last 25 years, why haven't more metro areas at least attempted to keep pace with the growth in traffic? There are two main reasons.

First, it has become far more costly to widen freeways and build new ones as urban areas have filled in with expensive development. The cost is political as well as economic. Unlike in the early days of freeway building, you can't just bulldoze neighborhoods wherever a new freeway would make transportation sense (on the whole, a positive development), and anything you do build must go through costly and time-consuming environmental reviews. 

Second, many transportation planners and politicians believe that expanding road capacity is futile. If you build more, they say, the new lanes will simply fill up with more cars, and within a few years you'll be back where you started. This is only partly true. 

Some research does suggest that if you add a small amount of capacity in a place like Los Angeles, where roadway supply and demand are massively out of whack, the latent demand for faster travel during rush hours will fill the new capacity in short order. Still, the long-term data from TTI demonstrate clearly that if a metro area can keep increasing capacity in step with demand, it will end up with far less congestion than places that don't.

Yet because the notion that "we can't build our way out of congestion" is widely accepted, the long-range transportation plans of most large metro areas these days are premised not on making it easier for commuters to engage in their demonstrated preference but rather on the vain hope of "getting people out of their cars." 

Road construction receives a low priority in modern America, in favor of expanding mass transit and encouraging "active transportation" (biking and walking) by building more sidewalks and networks of bike lanes. In many of the largest metro areas during the last two decades, approved expansions of freeway capacity have been limited almost entirely to new carpool lanes. If people are going to stick with driving, the planners reason, we should at least push them to share rides by constructing preferential lanes for high-occupancy vehicles.

Congestion Pricing

When I first moved to Los Angeles from bucolic Santa Barbara in 1986, my easy five-minute commute was replaced by 30 to 45 minutes of L.A. freeway hell to go just 10 miles. Certain that there had to be a better way, I discovered the work of a small band of transportation researchers who were convinced that the missing ingredient in bringing freeway demand into sync with capacity was market pricing. Pioneered in the United States by Columbia University economist William Vickrey, who won a Nobel Prize in 1996, road pricing (later known as congestion pricing) had languished due to the lack of a workable method to charge variable prices. A New Mexico company called Amtech was in the process of addressing that gap by developing the first "toll tag" transponder. 

Even with this new technology, I could not imagine tradition-bound state transportation agencies using it to charge market prices on freeways. Yet for several decades, high-quality toll roads had already been financed, built, and operated by investor-owned companies in France, Italy, and Spain. The governments there would grant a company a long-term franchise, similar to those used for investor-owned electric utilities in the United States. Based on the franchise (called a "concession"), winning bidders could raise the capital to build the toll road, repaying their investors from toll revenues. So my proposal, in a 1988 policy paper published by the Reason Foundation, the 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that publishes this magazine, was to invite the private sector to finance, build, and operate market-priced lanes on Southern California's congested freeways.

That paper soon came to the attention of Gov. George Deukmejian and California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) Director Bob Best, and in 1989 they secured passage of legislation to permit up to four pilot projects based on the idea. The first project to be developed was the 91 Express Lanes, four new variably priced lanes in the wide median on 10 miles of the highly congested SR 91 freeway in Orange County. The lanes, built for just $130 million in 1995 dollars, opened to traffic in December 1995, allowing commuters who had purchased transponders to decide whether higher speed was worth the congestion-sensitive price listed at the entrance of the passage.

 Although derided by skeptics, the tollway proved hugely popular. The demand for improved mobility was high enough that the Express Lanes have fully covered construction costs (via annual debt service payments on long-term toll revenue bonds) as well as all ongoing operation and maintenance expenses.

The 91 experiment demonstrated four important things. First, the long-term toll concession model from Europe is transferable to the United States. Second, many people are willing to pay for faster and more reliable rush-hour trips in highly congested freeway corridors. Third, transponder technology is a practical way of implementing congestion pricing. Fourth, variable, demand-based pricing is effective in keeping priced lanes flowing freely at the speed limit, even during the busiest rush-hour periods.

Challenging the Carpool-Lane Model

At first the success of the 91 Express Lanes did not stimulate much private-sector investment in congestion-relief lanes. But it did encourage the conversion of high-occupancy vehicle (HOV) lanes into something else the Reason Foundation invented: high-occupancy toll (HOT) lanes. By the early 1990s, research had found that HOV lanes make sense in only very limited conditions. Most such lanes—restricted to buses, vanpools, and carpools—were seriously underutilized. Commuters stuck in congestion in regular lanes fumed at the empty road to their left. And in a few cases in very congested metro areas, HOV lanes were jammed, to the point where they became nearly as backed up as regular lanes. The remedy for the latter problem was supposed to be increasing the required occupancy from two people to three—but that proved very difficult politically and therefore was rarely adopted. Thus, most HOV lanes were (and are) either too empty or too full.

Nearly all HOV lanes were built with federal money, making it illegal to convert them back to regular lanes despite their unpopularity. (The only known case of such a conversion, involving two HOV facilities in New Jersey, was authorized by a provision that a few of the state's representatives in Congress slipped into an unrelated 1998 bill.) So why not make lemonade out of these lemons, we proposed in 1993, by selling the excess capacity in underutilized HOV lanes to willing buyers? During the next 15 years, about a dozen HOV lane facilities were thus converted to HOT lanes in metro areas ranging from San Diego to Minneapolis to Miami, with each conversion adding to the evidence that commuters welcome having the choice between congested free lanes and uncongested pay lanes.

This evidence was not lost on those interested in investor-owned, toll-financed projects similar to the 91 Express Lanes. The second major such project, proposed to the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) in 2002, was aimed at adding express toll lanes to the congestion-choked Capital Beltway in the Northern Virginia suburbs of Washington, D.C.

The Beltway is known to many locals as "the world's largest parking lot." Motorists desperately wanted relief, but the only plan VDOT had was a $3 billion project to add two old-style HOV lanes in each direction on the most congested 14-mile portion (the southwest quadrant) of the Beltway. There were two big problems with this plan: It faced enormous opposition because it required the condemnation of more than 300 homes and businesses to widen the Beltway, and VDOT didn't have anything close to $3 billion on hand.

Thinking Outside the Box

Fortunately, the Virginia legislature in 1995 had enacted the Public-Private Transportation Act, which authorized long-term toll concessions. Like California's 1989 law authorizing pilot toll-road projects, the Virginia law allowed private companies to make unsolicited proposals, rather than merely responding to VDOT requests. In 2002 one of America's leading engineering and construction firms, Fluor, submitted a proposal to fix the congestion problem on the Beltway. Rather than building tax-funded HOV lanes, Fluor proposed toll-funded HOT lanes. And rather than massively widening the Beltway, Fluor suggested an approach that would still add two lanes in each direction but would require only six takings of private property, mostly to accommodate rebuilt bridges and on/off ramps. The cost was estimated at $1 billion (one-third the cost of VDOT's plan), to be financed based on toll revenues. This was the 91 Express Lanes on steroids.

VDOT responded cautiously but positively to the proposal, beginning what ended up being several years of discussions about "design exceptions" that Fluor wanted in order to reduce the project's cost and footprint. Meanwhile, the company pitched the project to dozens of business and community groups in the Virginia suburbs. As Gary Groat, who was then Fluor's project development director, explained to me, federal rules (which had to be followed, since the Beltway is an interstate highway, I-495) forbid a state transportation department from "taking sides" on a proposed highway project while it is in the environmental evaluation phase. But no such restriction applies to the private-sector proponent. So Groat organized presentation after presentation, explaining HOT lanes and congestion pricing, the relatively low cost of the project, and the proposed financing based on toll revenue, all of which would make it possible to build the project in the near term (unlike VDOT's unaffordable HOV lanes). Most of all, Groat stressed the huge reduction in property takings entailed by Fluor's plan. These presentations, over several years, turned what had been strong opposition to the HOV lanes plan into wide support for the HOT lanes alternative.

As negotiations with VDOT progressed, the agency required many changes that would raise the project's cost; in addition, construction costs had increased significantly during the five years of review and negotiation. With the price tag now pushing $1.9 billion, it became apparent to Fluor that toll revenues alone would not pay for the project. This realization led to two key changes. First, the company teamed up with the Australian toll road company Transurban as both an investor and the planned operator. Second, the deal became a public-private partnership in which VDOT would contribute $409 million to cover most of its changes while Fluor/Transurban would finance the remaining $1.5 billion based on toll revenues. The deal was finalized in 2007, and the "financial close" took place in December of that year. It is noteworthy that investors were willing to commit to the project during the early months of the credit market crunch, which suggests the power of the financial model for toll lanes.

Construction began in spring 2008, and the project is scheduled to open to traffic by late 2012. Relief from rush-hour gridlock is finally in sight for hard-pressed Beltway commuters. Furthermore, the impending reality of the Beltway HOT lanes has stimulated serious research and planning for what could end up being a whole network of market-priced toll lanes in the D.C. metro area. Fluor/Transurban is negotiating a second project, which would convert 59 miles of the existing reversible two-lane HOV facility on I-95 approaching D.C. from the south into HOT lanes. 

Commuters in the D.C. metro area waste, on average, more than $1,500 a year in time and fuel due to congestion. The overall metro-area congestion cost in 2009 was $4 billion, eight times as high as the corresponding cost in 1984 when adjusted for inflation. So it's a promising sign that the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments is refining plans for a region-wide network of congestion-priced lanes that could become an official part of the region's long-range transportation plan within the next year or so. 

Dallas and Fort Worth Join the Parade

Although policy makers in Texas have been more inclined to add highway capacity than their counterparts in many other parts of the country, the state has grown so much during the last 25 years that its highway fuel-tax funds have not kept pace. Consequently, the Dallas/Ft. Worth metro area ranks fifth in the nation in congestion cost, at $3.7 billion per year, with 66 percent of rush-hour travel occurring in congested conditions. Early last decade the Texas legislature passed a sweeping transportation public-private partnership act, aiming to tap into toll-based private capital to add needed capacity, especially on urban freeways.

The most congested part of Dallas has long been the LBJ Freeway (I-635). It constitutes the northern and eastern portions of an inner beltway (or "loop," in local lingo) around the city. When the LBJ was last expanded, the project was controversial due to the high-value properties along much of the corridor. In response, the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) promised this would be the last widening of the freeway's footprint. But with continued growth in the metro area, the LBJ quickly ran out of capacity.

Because of its commitment not to expand the freeway's footprint, TxDOT approved a plan to add LBJ HOT lanes—up to three in each direction—by building tunnels beneath the existing freeway. When the agency issued a request for proposals, however, it took the open-minded approach of allowing bidders to propose alternatives. Of the two finalists, one went with the tunnels idea, at an estimated cost of $3.3 billion. But the winning bid, from Cintra/Meridiam, proposed an alternative that would cost only $2.6 billion. Via very creative engineering, the consortium proposed building most of the new toll lanes below the level of the main freeway lanes, with the main lanes cantilevered over the depressed express lanes. While in some ways more complicated to build, this approach produced significantly more roadway per dollar. 

As with the Beltway project in Northern Virginia, what TxDOT required—including full reconstruction of existing lanes and maintenance of the whole project for 52 years—proved more costly than the projected toll revenues could finance. The department therefore offered up to $700 million in state highway funds up front. But the winning bidder requested only $496 million, so TxDOT got the lanes it wanted while saving more than $200 million for other projects. And since Cintra/Meridiam had to finance only $2.6 billion, what the consortium needs to recover in toll revenues is significantly less than what tunnels would have cost.

This project also was financed during the credit market crunch, in June 2008. The tax-exempt private activity bonds received an investment-grade rating. Cintra, Meridiam, and the local fire and police pension fund together invested $665 million in private equity—an indication of investor confidence in the robustness of projected toll revenues over the 52-year concession period. The project is now under construction and expected to open to traffic in 2015.

Only six months earlier, the same Cintra/Meridiam team reached financial close on a slightly less ambitious toll-lanes project on the other side of the metro area: the $2.1 billion North Tarrant Express. This project will double the capacity of a 13-mile stretch of I-820 and SH 121/183 on the northeast side of Fort Worth, providing access from there to the huge DFW Airport. On I-820, the four new toll lanes can fit into the median, between the existing regular lanes. But on SH 183, some of the new lanes will be elevated, due to much less available right of way.

Are We There Yet?

We are on the verge of a paradigm shift in transportation. The ultimate manifestation of this re-think might be that investor-owned limited-access highways become a new category of utility, analogous to America's largely investor-owned electricity, natural gas, and telecommunications sectors, and the partially investor-owned water utility sector.

Steve Lockwood, a senior policy official at the Federal Highway Administration during the George H.W. Bush administration, helped build the case for loosening federal restrictions on tolling and pricing in the 1991 reauthorization of the federal highway and transit program. In a series of talks over several years, Lockwood made the analogy between highways and other network utilities, and even suggested that in the 21st century state transportation departments might evolve into public/private "transcorps" that would operate as businesses, more like state turnpike agencies than typical departments. The concept of investor-owned highways was independently fleshed out by former World Bank transport economist Gabriel Roth in his 1996 book Roads in a Market Economy.

Despite America's 19th-century history of privately franchised toll roads, most people have trouble seeing highways as businesses. If they have been exposed to economics, they think of roads as classic examples of "public goods," which must be provided by government because there's no way to exclude those who won't pay for them. While that might be mostly true for city streets and boulevards, it is not a problem for limited-access highways, where entry can only occur at certain points and charging for use is easy thanks to 21st-century electronic tolling, which is eliminating toll booths altogether. Just as electric utilities can charge variable rates to encourage customers to not use power-hungry appliances during periods of peak demand, expressway companies can charge more during rush hour to encourage motorists to shift nonessential trips to off-peak times.

In light of ever-worsening congestion, America's urban freeways constitute a massive case of government failure. They do not give their customers reliable mobility, and their method of financing (via flat-rate fuel taxes) vastly undercharges urban users (especially during rush hours) and generally overcharges rural highway users, whose roads cost far less to build. And without market pricing, we don't know how much urban expressway capacity people would be willing to pay for.

The private sector is capable of taking on the challenge of reinventing America's freeways. In recent years, several hundred global infrastructure investment funds have been created by investment banks, fund managers, and pension funds. As of 2011, Infrastructure Investor reported, the 30 largest such funds had raised $183 billion during the previous six years. The financial firm Probitas Partners estimated that all such funds had raised $200 billion by then. That kind of money is intended as equity investment, covering perhaps 25 percent of a project's cost, with the balance financed through bonds and other forms of debt. Thus, if these funds reach a total of $250 billion, that should make possible $1 trillion of infrastructure project investment, which could help expand and modernize a whole lot of congested, aging freeways.

Another factor supporting a paradigm shift is the increasing obsolescence of the fuel tax as America's primary highway funding source. The rising price of oil has motivated both business and government to seek alternatives to gasoline- and diesel-powered vehicles. Government-mandated increases in fuel economy have already reduced the yield of per gallon fuel taxes, since people today can drive twice as far on a gallon of gas as they did 25 years ago. By 2025 average fuel economy is mandated to double again, which will produce gaping shortfalls in highway-dedicated revenue (even if politicians were to stop siphoning off highway money to pay for bike paths and streetcars). 

We will have to shift to a more direct means of paying for highway use, and some form of per-mile electronic toll charge is almost certainly the best way forward. As the reality of this change sinks in, people may be able to get their minds around the concept of paying their monthly highway bill, just as they pay their monthly electricity, gas, and water bills.

Chronic freeway congestion ought to be intolerable to Americans. It's a crude form of rationing, based on time instead of money, like Soviet bread lines. The idea that everyone should be equally miserable, stuck in congestion, is similarly un-American. HOT lanes and toll concessions have given us a glimpse at a better future. 

Robert W. Poole Jr. is director of transportation policy at the Reason Foundation.

NEXT: Watch Matt Welch Debate Jonah Goldberg About Libertarians and Conservatives

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

    1. Bragging about your ignorance/laziness.

  1. We will have to shift to a more direct means of paying for highway use, and some form of per-mile electronic toll charge is almost certainly the best way forward. As the reality of this change sinks in, people may be able to get their minds around the concept of paying their monthly highway bill, just as they pay their monthly electricity, gas, and water bills.

    Obviously, the libertarian solution to transportation funding is to put GPS trackers on every car.

    1. My obvious response is “go fuck yourself slaver.”

      1. I’m not the guy writing for a libertarian think tank advocating GPS trackers on cars as a policy goal. I think you should direct your ire at Poole.

      2. The libertarian solution would be government selling highways fee simple to private owners, who can charge users any way they want to. I can’t stand this user fee for crap for things the government shouldn’t be doing.

  2. I laugh at congestion pricing. It assumes that we all wake up and go driving at 8 a.m. every morning for fun. To put it in economic terms it assumes that the demand for road space is elastic. Since most people don’t get to set their work hours and most jobs require you to work something approaching and 8 to five schedule, demand is very inelastic. Yeah, it raises money and pays for the roads. But you are pissing in the wind if you think anything but the most draconian pricing will reduce congestion.

    1. One of three bridges connecting Louisville to Southern Indiana (I-64 bridge) was closed for about 6 months (it reopened last weekend). It turned out that work hours for most people were much more elastic that some thought.

      1. People can adjust to anything, which is what planners refuse to accept.

    2. Rush hour here in LA runs from about 6 AM to 10 AM, and again from 3 PM to 7 PM. Not everyone works from 9 to 5. Heck, with Obama, most people don’t even work.

    3. I think you would be surprised at the degree of flexibility many workers have with their hours. This system would make it even more economic for them to work 6 – 2, thus reducing the traffic faced by people, like you, who are constrained to a 9-5 work schedule.

  3. “…traffic is much worse than it used to be.”

    I commute 40 miles each way in Northern New Jersey. Traffic isn’t worse than it used to be. I work at home a couple of days a week now. I think there are many others like me, because when I drive in, my traffic is lighter than it was at the same times a decade ago.

    1. I lived in the San Jose area twenty years ago. Traffic was much worse back then. Most of the reduction is due to the economy, I suspect, and more people staying at home to watch TV and waste time commenting on the Internet.

  4. some form of per-mile electronic toll charge is almost certainly the best way forward.

    Fuck you, Poole.

    Maybe we should all have GPS trackers with recording capabilities implanted at birth, too.

    1. Poole reminds me of “libertarian paternalists”. Let’s use the government to engineer artificial market decisions.

    2. A low powered devices that identifies your car as you drive past a toll booth is not a GPS tracker. If you are afraid of it being used against you, you can remove it without consequence when you don’t need it. I don’t see anything in this article that refers to a GPS tracker. Where is this coming from?

  5. Brand new cars have black boxes with recording capability; we should allow the police to stop any civilian vehicle randomly and download their driving history. If they have been speeding, or rolling through stop signs, the cop can issue the appropriate tickets. That would be a revenue enhancer.

    And, if the vehicle can be shown to have not taken the most direct and/or most fuel-efficient route (or “evaded” a toll!) the driver can be fined.

    1. They aren’t black boxes; the data is generally stored in the PCM. The data stored does not contain GPS coordinates though.

      Most of it is various temperatures and voltages for shit on the car to record the conditions of a failure.

    2. With GPS tracking devices, tickets could be issued in real time.

      The Ministry of Transportation could even require that new vehicles have ticket dispensers in the dash.

      That way cops could be saved the trouble of issuing tickets themselves, and devote more of their time to committing acts of violence on citizens.

      1. But if you don’t get to pull people over as often how do you commit random acts of violence?

        1. Who said “random”?

    3. And, if the vehicle can be shown to have not taken the most direct and/or most fuel-efficient route (or “evaded” a toll!) the driver can be fined.

      Evading tolls? How quaint! There would be no way to evade a toll when the box is beaming your exact location at every second to the DoT other than ripping the box out. Of course, if anyone found out that you weren’t driving with a box, the city/state/feds will hit you for tax evasion.

      1. Evading tolls? How quaint! There would be no way to evade a toll when the box is beaming your exact location at every second to the DoT other than ripping the box out. Of course, if anyone found out that you weren’t driving with a box, the city/state/feds will hit you for tax evasion.

        I find this argument a bit specious; vehicle electronics are easily 10 years behind. VERY easy to hack.

        A cursory google search will reveal hundreds of products now that easily circumvent the PCM’s stock programming.

        1. VERY easy to hack.

          That’s what the mandatory inspections are for. At your cost, of course.

          1. State inspections (at least in NC) don’t verify the vehicle’s programming.

            1. But, they could.

        2. I’ve got one of those black boxes in my (formerly underpowered) Toyota FJ. Upped my horsepower noticeably, tweaked the shift ratios, and saves me a couple of MPGs.

    4. Toyota is awesome in that they have refused to turn over any usable information even with court orders.

    5. And an insurance company named “Progressive” will give you a “snapshot” discount for letting them track your whereabouts. Kind of a fitting name now.

  6. They want to charge a per mile tax and moniter how many miles everyone drives. As Brooks said, fuck you Poole. Just because it is your pony, doesn’t mean you get to fuck people to get it. Go die in a fire Poole you authoritarian bastard.

    1. No, John, the article is about paying for what you get. You want to continue the kinds of subsidies and inefficiencies that persist in road transportation now or do you want to discuss the problems associated with free rides like a grownup?

      1. If the price of perfect pricing is giving up everyone’s privacy, then maybe we ought to give up on perfect pricing.

        If the monitored everyone’s bank account and made government approved ATM cards the only legal method of payment, I bet we could get rid of the free riding problem called tax evasion.

        You need to be a grown up. And get out of high school economics and understand there are values in the world that trump efficiency.

        1. I don’t see anything in Poole’s article that would force you to use HOT lanes or pay congestion pricing. If your values about privacy trump efficiency, you can sit in the congested lanes just as you do now.

          (Actually, it would probably speed things up for you too since there would be a net increase in capacity and some of the drivers that are currently slowing things down through congestion would be diverted to the new lanes.)

          But I don’t see that anything Poole wrote would require you to give up your privacy. If you choose to value your privacy more than efficiency, don’t complain about not having your cake and eating it too.

          1. That assumes those methods would never be made mandatory. And that requires me to trust the government, which I don’t. And again, having the government bribe people to give up their privacy sounds like a really bad idea. Why don’t we just fund the roads a different way and live with some inefficiency? Again, efficiency isn’t the ultimate or only value in the world.

            1. John, I’m not entirely sure why you expect privacy while performing the very public act of driving on public roads.

            2. Why don’t we just fund the roads a different way and live with some inefficiency?

              That’s what we’re doing right now. And clearly some people do think efficiency is more important to them than privacy.

              Again, efficiency isn’t the ultimate or only value in the world.

              Never said it was. But your response effectively assumes the privacy should absolutely trump efficiency. (I don’t know if you really think that or not since I can only go off your response here.)

              For what it’s worth, I would oppose mandatory vehicle tracking, but at least for now we have a populace that would be up in arms about that level of intrusion (although they let more stealthy intrusions slide by) and courts that would take a very jaundiced view of any such attempt. Whether those conditions will continue to apply in the future is another question, but if they do not, I’m afraid all of this discussion will be academic since those of us commending here will be rounded up and forced to live in a guarded, fenced compound manned by Joe Arpaio clones in the Sonoran anyway.

          2. HOT lanes, like HOV lanes, increase congestion, by forcing everyone else into fewer lanes.

      2. Paying for what I get?

        So all the local, state, and federal taxes I pay which are allocated to road construction and maintenance will be returned to me? Right?

        I’m not going to end up paying the same taxes and have a GPS tracker shoved up my ass, right?

        1. Discussions like this end up with everyone talking at cross purposes.

          When I see someone talking about instituting user fees, I assume they are talking about ending the practice of tax money going for that purpose.

          Whether this results in reduced tax rates or in the government in question using the money for some othe boodoggle (the more likely outcome) is a differnet issue.

          The other issue is that most discussions about ROADZZZZ keep making the same assumptions about governments supplying them.

          And yes there is a serious problem about the double paying problem of paying the fuel tax and a toll at the same time.

          So, yes, a whole different way of these services might need to be thought out.

          1. I don’t see why fuel taxes are not a perfectly appropriate way to fund roads. The more I use a road, the more fuel I burn and the more taxes I pay.

            And further, roads are not a private good. They are a public good. Their existence benefits all of society. You bitch and moan about roads being subsidized. But even if you never sit in a car in your life you benefit from them. How do you think the food gets to your grocery store? If we didn’t have a really strong road system, we would have a much smaller and poorer economy. So, I take issue with the whole contention that roads is some kind of political graft and everyone who owns a car some kind of thief.

            1. Not only that, but heavier vehicles that cause more road damage use more fuel, and hence pay more fuel tax.

            2. John, my comment had nothing to do with the appropriateness of the fuel tax to pay for roads. It had to do with the problem of double paying both tolls and fuel taxes.

              If anything it favored your side.

            3. Not all fuel is used for road vehicles. But it still gets taxed. Fuel taxes are also too close to social manipulation excise taxes for my comfort.

              1. Yes, not all fuel is used for road vehicles. But exemptions are provided for a number of non road uses (commercial fishing, agriculture etc).

                For the most part the bulk of fuel purchased at the retail level is for road use.

                It’s not a bad proxy for a road use fee, but fails in many crucial ways (eg congestion pricing, which contrary to John’s objections is a real cost and something to be factored into road use).

                1. The problem is the arbitrariness and complexity in creating “user fee” policy. Something that I would prefer the private sector to figure out. If government provides “public need” services, then the least I ask is that they are straight forward with minimal arbitrariness.

            4. “They are a public good.”

              If roads are a “public need” or a “public good”, then openness is the goal and they might as well be funded with taxes through a general fund, and maybe some tolls where practical. The point of user fees is to make the roads resemble something “market based”, which becomes unnecessary when you consider them a public good that should exist regardless of market demands. It also adds complication to government policy.

              1. “Public good” and “public need” are a little too much like “too big to fail” from where I sit.

                When I hear them it sounds a lot like someone’s looking for a handout.

          2. When I see someone talking about instituting user fees, I assume they are talking about ending the practice of tax money going for that purpose.

            I’m pretty sure you assume wrong, then.

            1. I meant when I see a writer doing it not a politician. My bad. 🙂

              Actually, especially a writer in a libertarian rag.

              1. “especially a writer in a libertarian rag”

                You still assume wrong when this discussion involves Poole.

      3. “No, John, the article is about paying for what you get.”

        No, the article is about continuing subsidies and government control over transportation by giving them a fake market-styled pricing scheme to avoid privatization that would enable real market-styled pricing schemes.

        1. Good point.

          But this is the problem with almost all “privatization” which for the most part ends up being some sort of crude contracting-out with the same cronies getting the spoils in the new regime as they did in the old.

          You are absolutely right. What many of these discussions fail to do is question the whole concept of whether the government should be involved in the provisio of a given good or service in any way at all.

          Most of us are simply to accustomed to the status quo to think otherwise, I fear.

          1. The only thing I recognize as being accurately called “privatization” is a total fee-simple transfer of ownership from the public entity to a private one. Everything else is some form of statism.

            1. It also needs to carry with it the right that in the event of the new owner deciding that a road (or what ever other public “good” the thing is; school, whatever) is not the best use of the land in question he can bulldoze it and build something different or subdivide it and sell it.

              Alas, the perceived need to “plan for the public good” precludes any adoption of any such thing.

  7. So when did Chapman start trolling us under the screen name of Poole?

  8. Nowhere in the article did it say that RFID tags would be mandated. The RFID tags would be available to commuters who voluntarily wanted to take advantage of demand pricing. I understand that privacy is important to libertarians, but dial it back a little. Poole didn’t write anything about mandatory RFID tags in your car. Also, White Zombie has a song about this.

    1. Yeah because the government would never make it mandatory. I have so much faith in that. And further, I don’t see how bribing people to give up their freedom is a particularly good thing to do. Maybe we should just find some other way to pay for the roads? As I said above, since road demand is inelastic as hell, congestion pricing rarely does anything other than raise money.

      1. Yeah because the government would never make it mandatory.

        That is a separate argument, and was not addressed in this article. As a libertarian, I too would resist the government mandating RFID tags.

        … I don’t see how bribing people to give up their freedom is a particularly good thing to do.

        I think RFID tags are analogous to supermarket “club cards”. They track what you purchase, where you purchase, and how you pay. People voluntarily use the cards to get the store discounts. I don’t see this as bribery, but merely consumers valuing the discounts more than the data the store collects. If you are concerned about privacy, ditch the club card and pay in cash.

        It is an interesting dilemma in our modern age, and there will be increasingly more conflicts like this in your everyday life.

        1. We have EZ-Pass here in NJ/NY and have had it for years and we’re not being rounded up by stormtroopers, maybe you all should just tone it down, hmmm?

          1. An easy pass does not monitor your every move.

          2. I have heard stories of those things being used for speeding tickets.
            They’ve got a timestamp at point A, another at point B, a distance in between. The math isn’t that hard.

            1. Waiting for all the holdouts like me to get Easy-Pass. Once there is no cash lane, it will start.

              1. For one of the toll roads in Tampa, there is no cash lane. You either have a transponder, or they snap a photo and send you a bill.

                1. The Miami-Dade Expressway Authority is well on its way to being fully cashless. If it isn’t already.

                  I designed one of the first combination openroad/cash toll plazas in the Florida Turnpike System. Before construction was even halfway finished they were making plans to tear out the cash lanes.

                  They even had us go back and redesign a bunch of stuff so they wouldn’t have as much stuff to tear down.

                  Open Road Tolling, it’s the future.

            2. I have heard stories of those things being used for speeding tickets.

              It’s done that way in the U.K. and Australia, IIRC. PITA too, considering the giant distances to cover in S. Australia/the Outback.

              I’m with John on this one. Anyone who thinks this won’t be made mandatory after a few years is deluding themselves.

              It’s pointless too. If we’re concerned about road wear, the vast majority of it is due to large semi-tractor trailers. Stop siphoning off gas tax funds for bauble-bullshit like at-grade light rail and other mass transit, raise the diesel tax enough to offset trucks’ increased road-wear, and we won’t need to have the Gov’t track our every mile. Private toll roads can do whatever they want, std. libertarian disclaimer, etc…

        2. I don’t have a super market club card with the government. And I don’t get tickets for buying too many boxes of chereos the way I do for rolling a stop sign. For that reason, I think these are different.

          And no, I don’t care if Progressive gave me free insurance, I would never sign up for their program.

          1. It’s only a matter of time.

  9. Most of it is various temperatures and voltages for shit on the car to record the conditions of a failure.

    Then why does Progressive(?) offer a special discount for letting them put a Good Driver monitor in the car? Speed, throttle position, braking force, differential wheel speed; all that stuff is available if the car has traction control and ABS. GPS reference points are no problem.

    How does their little back seat driver like left-foot braking, I wonder?

    1. Yes, when you voluntarily attach a gps device to a vehicle you can know its location. I’m just saying the GPS data is not stored.

      In its current state, the data is solely used by technicians and engineers to diagnose a component failure.

      1. Databases, how do they work?

  10. About this tracking business. We’re not too far from semi-to-fully automated and networked cars. When that comes, we’ll all be trackable when driving.

    1. There’s nothing about automatic driving technology that requires the car to be networked, though. If you get paranoid, you’ll always be able to destroy the antenna.

      1. Sure if you want a SWAT team to show up at your house.

      2. It’s the most likely scenario, though. Cars talking to each other makes a lot of sense from a safety and traffic-routing perspective.

        1. Yeah, I generally feel this is where it’s going. TomTom is already “mapping” traffic jams/etc. Not a big step at all.

    2. When that comes, I hope I am already dead.

    3. What will happen for people who just want to drive the fuck out of a car some times?

      1. Probably a fine for reckless behavior.

        1. Or a fine for antisocial, autonomous behavior.

  11. We’re not too far from semi-to-fully automated and networked cars. When that comes, we’ll all be trackable when driving.

    Private transportation is unmutual.

    PRIVACY is unmutual.

    1. Do not fear. Unlicensed turbo Segways!

  12. If you work anywhere in America outside of New York City…you battle congestion twice every weekday

    Unless we don’t. I like how the author assumes that everyone “outside of New York City” must live in another congested urban environment. This is what happens to your brain when you fly over us. Not that we are not unsophisticated hicks.

    1. by far the majority of people live in urban/semi-urban areas, and that trend is increasing

      rural areas simply have nothing to offer people, and frankly, half the rural areas aren’t that rural; I could point you to a bunch of areas in NJ that are “rural”, but you’re never far from dense development/population

      1. rural areas simply have nothing to offer people,

        As a city dweller I would say they offer a lot. And as the economy changes from the old 20th Century factory and office model to a more independent and less concentrated version, I would be more and more people see rural areas as offering something.

        1. Here I agree with you, John. A number of surveys I’ve seen over the year (alas, no links) have indicated that most Americans, given the choice with all other things equal, would live in the country-side. That is, increasingly, a very real possibility for many people. I have not worked in a city or an office for well over a decade. Indeed most of co-workers have been on other continents. Were it not that I have to travel fairly often, I could live in Timbuktu and do just fine.

    2. I don’t experience congestion at all on my daily commute. Maybe once a month do I even have to sit through more than one stoplight cycle.

      rural areas simply have nothing to offer people,

      They are light on jobs, but they offer a lot to people who don’t think urban areas offer enough to be worth the trouble.

  13. How about mass transit? We’ve got hundreds of miles of unused, or only-used-for-freight rail track here in NJ. There is absolutely nothing stopping any idiot from just putting some trains on them and running them, except for government rules.

    I say they allow for new lines to be opened by private companies in a form of privatization or pseudo-privatization, until we can get unions banned from government service, at which point the state could take over since at that point it would be more effective/cheaper.

    1. *We’ve got hundreds of miles of unused, or only-used-for-freight rail track here in NJ

      and I suspect the same is true in other metro areas, too

    2. I don’t know about North Jersey, but but in South Jersey they have the light rail from Trenton to Camden and they can’t run enough cars on that. Conversely, the Gambler’s Express, from 30th Street Station to AC, you can’t pay people to use. Both of them utilize existing commercial freight lines.

      1. *they can’t run enough cars on that

        probably because they’re using that stupid light rail/DMU system. The DMU’s seem to defeat the entire purpose of a train, which is that it has the advantage that one locomotive can pull MANY cars

    3. Private transit services will never be economical as long as any infrastructure is being subsidized. Regulation is also far too heavy. And if private transit were ever profitable, why the fuck would you want the government to take it over, when it is clear that government control of transportation is what made everything so fucked up in the first place?

      1. by private, I mean privately-run, like run by the private sector. It would be more economical because the unions wouldn’t be as strong, especially not at first, and in general private industry runs things better than the government; the profit motive and all that.

        And anyway, like I said, it would be a way to open up new lines without the state investing any money at first. I actually believe the state in the long run could run the trains cheaper and more effectively (with more times throughout the day, which matters, even if they’re not profitable) if the unions are eventually banned from the public sector, which could happen one day if we get some referendum laws in place in the various states.

  14. That fucking Blue Route (I-476 from the PA Turnpike to I-95) in SE Pennsylvania was antiquated before they even started building it. The same was true of the Schuylkill Expressway. And Roosevelt Boulevard is still the most dangerous road in the country. Way to go, PA.

    1. Seriously, I live in Quebec where our roads aren’t anything to brag about (horrible indications, poorly placed exits, aggressive drivers, unilingual signage, potholes etc.) but driving in Pennsylvania I have to admit is fucked up. All that area including Delaware-Maryland (where we vacation) is like a strange blur.

      Look, I don’t get how anyone in this day and age; with all the information at our disposal can’t see how subsidies warp things to the point of irrationality.

      Case in point, again to cite Quebec, daycare has been subsidized. Result? Extreme inefficiencies, corruption, unfairness and unionized workers who go on strike demanding six weeks vacation. That shit COSTS MONEY. Lots of it. Guess who pays?

      The situation in Quebec prior to this nonsense wasn’t bad enough to justify such intervention.

      It’s sad really how people continuously fall for the bull shit.

      1. “Case in point, again to cite Quebec, daycare has been subsidized. Result? Extreme inefficiencies, corruption, unfairness and unionized workers who go on strike demanding six weeks vacation. That shit COSTS MONEY. Lots of it. Guess who pays?”

        Albertans, through the equalization billions we send your way every year.

        1. That’s the big lie no one dares bring up. Absolutely. Without those equalizations Quebec is a have-not province with the most lavish welfare programs. It’s ridiculous. All that and we still never come under budget on anything.

  15. even if some HOV lanes are under-utilized, at least they’re still there ready to be utilized in the future, perhaps by some rule changes. What states/municipalities could do is expand licensing for taxi/van public transit: there could be van services for commuting to work, possibly with regular stops, or temporary regular stops changing based on demand. Not saying they free-market it completely, since such a scheme would NOT be free market and so wouldn’t work well since public roads are NOT a free market and cannot be (they’re public common access ways), but between complete government banning and complete “free-market”, there’s plenty of room, there’s no limit to what the English language can write in laws.

    1. Roads can be turned over to the free market. Privatize the highways, and vacate surface street right of ways to the adjacent property owners as public easements. People are not entitled to roads existing in any particular condition.

    2. Here’s a rule change that would work: let anyone who wants to drive in the HOV lane do so, at any time.

  16. Relax, nobody said anything about putting RFID or GPS on your cars against your will. They could make a part of your annual govt. vehicle inspection be to have your odometer recorded, and the taxes based on that.

    1. NC already does record your annual vehicle mileage.

  17. rural areas simply have nothing to offer people


  18. One of the best perks of my job is that they are extremely flexible with our hours. You can start your day any time between 7-10 AM. I live about 35 miles from my job, so I leave either very early or very late, and miss the majority of rush hour both ways. It takes me about 45 minutes on average. If I were forced to work 8-5, it would take me over an hour each way, easily.

    1. I work from 0600 to 1630. The mornings are a breeze, but the afternoon is a little rough, though manageable. My commute in the afternoon does not add much more time to my travel, and I live about 25 miles from my drive way to the parking lot at work.

  19. In Houston, they just created something called a “HOT lane” on the Gulf Freeway. You can now drive in the HOV lane solo if you pay a fee. The fee increases during rush hours, and at the very peak (I think 7-8 AM and 5-7 PM?) you can’t get on the HOV solo at all.

    And people are bitching endlessly up and down about having to pay to ride in it, and especially about it being more expensive during heavier traffic. Completely clueless. I’m sure there are plenty of people whose time is worth more that are willing to pay to get into town faster.

    1. In Houston, they just created something called a “HOT lane” on the Gulf Freeway.

      Didn’t exactly get around to reading the article before commenting, did you?

      1. I always skip to the good parts anyway.

      2. I was commenting as I read, and I thought of the HOT lanes before I got to the part about Dallas and Fort Worth. Anyway, this is an already existing HOV lane, not new construction.

        They are also doing real freeway expansion on the Gulf Freeway, increasing the lanes from six to ten for a five mile stretch about 15 miles out of downtown. It’s a total clusterfuck there these days, and I eagerly await the relief the expansion will provide.

  20. Congestion is not a problem that the government should be solving. People are not entitled to roads existing, or being convenient. Public-private schemes are just statism being disguised as a market solution.

    1. Bingo!

  21. The problem can be alleviated to some degree by increasing highway throughput (increasing highway speed), and increasing highway density (by automating driving; too many drivers aren’t that god at it).

    1. I am God at driving.

  22. When I see someone talking about instituting user fees, I assume they are talking about ending the practice of tax money going for that purpose.

    And, speaking of privatizing bridges…

  23. …raise the diesel tax enough to offset trucks’ increased road-wear…

    Yeah, good luck with that one. Only a pol interested in political suicide would go anywhere near that one.

    1. Not a criticism of you, Kreel, but I find it funny that charging classes of vehicles according to the wear they cause is political suicide, but telling everyone they need a Big Brother tracking device on their car is feasible and a great idea.

      1. Umm, the only way I would be in favor of using any kind of tracking devices for charging for road use would be if roads were completely privately owned and the road companies were required by law to keep the information completely confidential.

        Ain’t gonna happen, you say. I agree.

        Just because hypotheticals aren’t going to happen is no reason why they can’t be discussed.

        People are never going to favor privatizing roads because they think they’re entitled to get them, along with a bunch of other stuff, for free from the government.

        Even those who recognize they aren’t free still believe they need to get them from the government.

  24. I dunno man sounds like a rock solid plan to me dude.

    1. Jong Moo is onboard so it’s only a matter of time now!

  25. Your article assumes that cheap fuel will be available indefinitely. When gas prices hit $4.25 this summer, watch how the expressways clear up.

    1. Yeah, cause expressways have really cleared up in the past when gas prices went up, didn’t they?

    2. Yeah, I mean… people will just stop going to work because gas prices are too high.

      1. Given time, behavior will adjust to availability of resources. If fuel prices or congestion cause problems for people, they will do something else. Or bitch and demand the government to do something.

  26. “but rather on the vain hope of “getting people out of their cars.” ”

    Doesn’t that have to do with a lot of other factors though?

    For example,
    Poor urban planning including lack of mixed use housing
    low urban density
    not enough empahsis on telecommuting

  27. Christ, what a fucking bunch of whining in this thread.

    These developments are a good thing. The more things that can be shown to be done with limited or no government involvement the better.

    Awhile back it was that only governments could provide roads, now it is that it takes a private-public partnership and soon that will give way to just private money being used.

    That is just one more brick out of the wall. With the public school system dissolving that is two huge areas of “government only” concepts that are giving way to market solutions.

    Yet people here focus on the bullshit pointless things like transponders and RFID chips.

    As was pointed out no one has a right to a road or one of any given conditions. If it is conditional that you have some sort of tracking device to have access to the road then accept that condition or get around some other way.

    Why even worry about the tracking stuff?

    What are the odds that anyone is interested enough in you to track you? And it’s not like there is a human keeping tabs on you. It’s all in the computer and in order for that information to be useful it will take analysis. The costs of this will preclude any great number of people being tracked at anyone time. So unless you’ve made yourself of interest to people who want to spend the resources you are going to be able to travel along in total privacy.

    One bonus about ubiquitous cameras and tracking devices is that you have a perfect alibi all the time. No cop can credibly claim you were at a crime scene or committing a moving violation when all you have to do is show the logs of your travel to disprove him.

    This will severely restrict or even end the ability of cops to just make shit up.

    It will also mean that getting away with a crime will be much harder and I would expect crime rates to fall as a result and thus the need for cops to fall as well and thus the perceived need for them will decrease and that is a loss of political power for them and so it will be easier to reduce their numbers. This is a very good thing.

    This will be helped along by the fact that they will not be able to get away with anything. All the bullshit things they do to people will be caught on film or their travel logs will show that they could not have seen what they said they saw.

    With the reduction in public policing that is a third brick out of the wall.

    So while it is always possible for government involvement to make things worse I think the expectation here is that this trend towards more voluntary, market solutions will override government fuckery. And will, in time, lead to the concept that government at all levels and for any good or service, is obsolete.

    1. One bonus about ubiquitous cameras and tracking devices is that you have a perfect alibi all the time. No cop can credibly claim you were at a crime scene or committing a moving violation when all you have to do is show the logs of your travel to disprove him.

      Might as well have tracking chips implanted in the skin of every single individual in the country. That would also prove innocence, right?

      No way it would ever be abused, right? Someone in power would never abuse the system to track someone who spurned their romantic advancements. They would never use them to spy on their spouses or their children. They would never use it to spy on ex-girlfriends or wives. They would never use to track rivals or use it for blackmail. Nope, never!


      1. Really? So looking for a way to price road use leads to tracking devices implanted in people? Isn’t that the same illogical shit that gun-graboids use when the say “You want a gun? Well lets give everyone nukes then!”

        Anyone who tried to do that would have his life destroyed. Maybe not instantly but that kind of behavior is hard to hide and once it is out that person’s life is over.

        And you don’t need in-body tracking if everyone is carrying a cell phone.

    2. Because cops NEVER erase data to fit their story.
      Warran, you are very naive.

  28. Never underestimate the ability of politicians to screw up a good idea. Maryland has recently opened the cashless Inter County Connector, just on the other side of the Potomac from those almost complete HOT lanes. It runs roughly parallel to the heinously congested northern arc of the Beltway, about 6 miles further from DC. So far, I have not seen any reduction in congestion. This may be due to the high tolls ($4 for 12 miles in rush hour) and the additional cost to pay the toll: either buy the EZPass transponder AND pay a monthly fee on top of the electronically debited tolls, or pay a 50% surcharge to have a bill mailed.

  29. The problem, as with so many things, is government involvement. This article assumes that it is the government’s duty to provide roads. It is not necessarily so. As with so many other things, roads as well as the collateral effects of roads would be more of a net positive if private citizens owned them and were in charge of their construction and maintenance. It’s not hard to find examples of working private roads, look at any parking lot for any business. Especially in Michigan where the roads are literally crumbling, parking lots and private roads are much better designed and functional — as a whole. Government needs to give back their monopoly on road construction and let private citizens get back into the transportation business.

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.