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The American Road #7: End of the Roads?

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The American Road #7: End of the Roads?

Bill Crittenden
March 19, 2015

1908 Ford Model S 1909 BuickA typical Libertarian argument for private roads. Note the focus on simple technical aspects that sidesteps the actual issues of maintenance, funding, and affordable access. 1912 LocomobileAnother Libertarian argument regarding public roads. I wish I could write this off that as an isolated case, or something from The Onion, but it was not.
It's neither a surprise nor a secret that the roads in America aren't maintained to the standards that one would expect from a country that considers itself the greatest thing that ever happened in the history of the world.

It's finally gaining some media attention here because our Highway Trust Fund, which is in turn funded by a 18.3 cent per gallon gasoline tax that hasn't been raised to keep up with inflation since 1994, is set to run out of money on March 31.

Among the media commentaries was this nice summation of the urgency of the problem:

"At this point, we aren't just flirting with disaster, we're rounding third base and asking if disaster has any condoms." John Oliver, Last Week Tonight's segment on Infrastructure

At the heart of the problem is a battle of political philosophies. Standing in the way of road funding is a coalition of people who won't raise taxes for any reason whatsoever, people who see government as a detriment to anything it gets involved in, and politicians who want America to fail as long as it can be blamed on President Obama and aren't afraid to resort to sabotaging the government for political gain.

Since raising taxes is never popular, they have wide support. But our roads aren't going to fix themselves. At least, I hope that's not really their plan...

"The greatest examples of libertarianism in action are the hundreds of men, women and children standing alongside the roads all over Honduras. The government won’t fix the roads, so these desperate entrepreneurs fill in potholes with shovels of dirt or debris. They then stand next to the filled-in pothole soliciting tips from grateful motorists. That is the wet dream of libertarian private sector innovation." Edwin Lyngar, Salon

I was born in the lame-duck Carter days, but I learned from reading history the good old days of Ike Eisenhower when it was patriotic to invest in our infrastructure in general, and build up our roads in particular. Our tax rates were high but so was our sense of civic responsibility and it was the beginning of the golden age of an America that asked not what our country could do for us but what we could do for our country (John F. Kennedy, 1961). The days when Ayn Rand was a fringe crackpot Russian novelist, long before her silly little book became the Libertarian Bible and the economic plan for some Presidential hopefuls.

A lot of our bridges and highways built during that era had expected life spans that are past their expiration dates today. As their age is shows more and more each year we show less and less interest in repairing or replacing them.

I've long been saying that American cars aren't soft and squishy because of poor engineering but because that's what is best suited to cruising the long, straight, pockmarked ribbons of crumbling asphalt that pass for a road system. It's a good thing that gas tax has no chance of going up because we all might need a 4x4 soon if the Highway Trust Fund runs out of money.

I can't tell if we're supposed to be driving SUVs over post-apocalyptic roads for the "freedom" of it or if these libertarians actually think highways will magically get awesome if the government gets out of the business of building and maintaining them, just like the free market corrected itself when General Motors fixed all those ignition switches against the demands of NHTSA to keep the defective ones in the cars.

Oh, wait, that's right, the exact opposite happened. Because reasonable people, people of actual positive consequence in the world, recognized governments as necessary and built one. The Constitution that some Americans take as holy scripture was actually the second governing document of our country, replacing the weak and ineffective Articles of Confederation. Roughly four score and seven years after independence was declared the North kicked the South's ass in part because the South tried to re-adopt the weaker and less effective Confederate system of government. Oh, and the Union ended slavery in America, too, because government really can be a force for good in the right hands.

Ayn Rand just made money selling fantasy novels, with about as much basis in reality as Harry Potter, to naïve and unworldly rubes who saw their "first world problems" (like long lines at the DMV) as gross violations of human rights. Then she went and collected social security anyway, because there's always an excuse to take even if you spend your life advocating against the giving that made that money available.

Like Ayn and her social security checks, everyone's happy to justify taking the Highway Trust Fund money, but nobody wants to put any back in.

Maybe that's because, for the last few decades, our return on our tax investment has been terrible. When an investment is really good, people scrape up as much money as they can to put into it. When we waste money by the trillion it's just painful to see the tax bill at the end of the year, and Rand appeals to those who see the bloated mess it's become but are too lazy to try and fix it. Better to just "reduce it to the size where I can drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub." (Anti-tax Libertarian icon and overgrown teenager Grover Norquist, 2001)

I'm betting something that fits in the size of Mr. Norquist's bathtub couldn't keep track of General Motors' safety complaints or monitor the repairs and maintenance of 205,438 miles of Interstate and U.S. Numbered Highways, let alone do both at the same time.

Sure, we could just let private companies that operate under the principle of strict fiduciary duty take over the responsibility for the ownership, maintenance, and access rights for our highways. But then that fiduciary duty guarantees that said roads are being managed and maintained for the sole sake of its shareholders and not for the public good. Maintenance will be done only as absolutely necessary to maintain a road's profitability, and access will be priced as high as possible. Sucks if your commute to work is on a popular route, the new road owners may not feel a need to maintain it if traffic and profits are still flowing and they'll charge you as much as they possibly can get you to pay before they feel you'll take an alternate route. Got a commute that doesn't have a viable alternative route? Guess you're gonna be that road company's bitch or have to get a new job.

Again, this isn't hypothetical, this is proven in observable real-life scenarios. Private company Cintra charges $4.50 per car for their 8 miles of the Chicago Skyway, as opposed to 75 cents for iPass users or $1.50 for cash customers at standard Illinois toll booths that charge an average of six cents a mile over the toll road system.

Depend on a private company to plow and salt in the winter and you're really going to be screwed. Since you've already traded someone you can talk to at public meetings and vote out of office for a company executive you might not even be able to get a name for, maybe you can file a complaint with the company's customer service and see if that gets you anywhere. I sincerely hope Comcast doesn't get into the road management business.

So what we have here with the Highway Trust Fund isn't a dispute over efficiency and efficacy, what we have is a complete lack of maturity by people who want all of the elements of a modern society but refuse to take any of the responsibility to build & maintain them. A complete lack of maturity by people who cite the philosophy of a poorly written novel from over a half century ago instead of looking out to the real world of today for actual real life examples of success and failure upon which to base a policy. A complete lack of maturity by politicians who are so angry that a black Democrat occupies the Oval Office that they will sabotage everything they can get their hands on to try and make his Presidency a failure, regardless of the collateral damage to average working-class American families.

A complete lack of maturity by people who say we should abolish roads because we should have flying cars. I'm still not sure that's not actually satire.

If we can't even grow up enough as a nation to patch our highways and repair our bridges in this modern age we really should stop with this "greatest nation in the world" bleating and just adopt a more appropriate description that reflects our new status: the white Christian's version of Somalia.

Time will tell if we really need to wait to find out that, to borrow John Oliver's metaphor, disaster not only doesn't have condoms but also didn't bring any lube, either. Maybe a metaphorical sore rear end is what it will take before we finally regain our sense of responsibility in this matter. I hope not, but I'm not optimistic. In the meantime, I'd seriously advise against any American buying a vehicle with low-profile tires.

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