As in most cities, traffic is atrocious in the metro Washington area. I missed the train one day last week and my morning commute took me almost two-and-a-half hours. My highway miles, which constitute probably 90% of the drive into the District consist of HOV lanes, whether in the one designated lane outside the Beltway or both lanes inside the Beltway. (I-66 is all HOV once it crosses inside the Beltway.) The area needs a transportation solution.
As a libertarian, this story about some localities in Northern Virginia considering offers from private developers to pay for road upgrades in exchange for zoning approvals fascinated me. I’m certainly in favor of privatizing governmental activities wherever possible, and as I’ve read more, I’m not opposed to private roads instead of public roads. (I’m not rah-rah over the idea yet, but that’s the practical side of me. The intellectual battle continues.) Whether or not this current scenario in Virginia could work is worth discussing, as it provides insight into the debate. Consider:
“This is one of the prices we pay for not adequately funding our transportation system,” said Ronald F. Kirby, director of transportation planning for the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments. “We’re getting into a situation where we’re so desperate for improvements that we’re willing to make deals like this.”
County officials say they are aware that the offers are a Faustian bargain of sorts, since the deals would draw even more cars onto the roads that need fixing. But they are fed up with waiting, they said, and if legislators fail to agree on a funding package in the coming weeks — one with clear guidelines for where the money’s going — turning down the developers will be more difficult.
I read the first quote with a skeptic’s interpretation. For the purpose of today’s debate, I’ll agree that we’re not funding transportation adequately. But where does that simple statement end? Do we raise taxes? Or do we analyze what we’re spending public funds on today? Essentially, it’s worth separating any idea of a causal link between transportation funding and government tax receipts. Mr. Kirby doesn’t carry it that far, so I have no idea what his position is regarding how to fix it. But the natural inclination of legislators is to not eliminate spending if funds aren’t available when new needs arise. That shouldn’t be the automatic leap in Virginia, although I suspect that’s where the plan is going.
Of course, turning over funding and construction to private developers could lead to the Faustian bargain some fear. My morning commute shows that it’s not unfounded. It would be unwise for local politicians to use that theory as the sole deciding factor in the deals. Let the developers present a cost-benefit analysis and present it for consideration. Then review it thoroughly. It sounds simple, but I hold little confidence. A few circuitous re-election campaign donations seem more likely.
Later in the article, more details arise. What I find most telling is this passage:
Some local officials are less impressed by the developers’ largesse than others. Skeptics note that builders are paying for many of the improvements by establishing special tax districts within their developments, thereby passing on much of the cost to the new residents.
That sounds sinister, but how is passing the cost to new residents different than how the state would pay for increased spending on improvements? Leprechauns don’t deliver pots of gold to government coffers every time a rainbow appears. Since I’m certain residents in the new development will know that they’re in a special tax district, they’ll be in the best position to decide if they want to buy a home in the neighborhood, given the tax implications. If the developer over-estimates what home-buyers are willing to pay, it could lose money or go bankrupt. It comes down to two private parties negotiating terms for conducting a transaction. It’s capitalism. Where’s the flaw?
It’s clear that hurdles to privatizing exist. Whether or not this is the place to start is a question worth asking. The debate should be interesting, at least. However, it should teach legislators and the voters who elect them that the private market isn’t scary. Profit motive isn’t dangerous. When private entities seek to get something done, that’s a sign of where the market wants to go. Government doesn’t need to rubber stamp anything just because it’s a private individual or company, but government shouldn’t be a hurdle just to keep its action in the monopoly.