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Time For Another Good Roads Movement?

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Opinions expressed by Bill Crittenden are not official policies or positions of The Crittenden Automotive Library. You can read more about the Library's goals, mission, policies, and operations on the About Us page.

Time For Another Good Roads Movement?

Bill Crittenden
January 18, 2014

The following is the personal opinion of Bill Crittenden.  The Crittenden Automotive Library itself has no political agenda and welcomes all political viewpoints regarding wheeled transportation.

Potholes suck.  Tire-eating, wheel-denting, bone-jarring little reverse landmines.  Most people want good, smooth roads that won't damage their cars, and it seems since government has dropped the ball on this, it's time to let private enterprise take over.

The thought of roads being owned and run by private companies is a thought that sets any fan of Ayn Rand to dreaming of perfect, German-quality roads at a fraction of the price we pay for them now.

Of course, this is born of the childish notion that government is the source of all society's ills because it is incapable of even the simplest tasks, and the motive for profit will always produce the best results because everyone is honest in the private market.

In reality, assholes find their way into public works and private enterprise.  Motives, intentions, and the quality of service must always be questioned regardless of who owns the agency doing the work.

Open competition works in certain markets, but one that uses a finite resources of space, so finite they often completely prevent duplication of efforts, privatization usually becomes a government-sanctioned monopoly.  And any freshman economics student knows the result of that.

Take, for example, fast food.  Quality is going up, prices are holding steady, service is slightly improved, and chains are rebranding themselves into classier establishments.  Of course, when any fast food chain can plunk down a restaurant wherever a half acre corner lot can be found, there can be plenty of competition.  Even the smallish town of Woodstock has all the major players: McDonald's, Wendy's, Burger King, Taco Bell, Jimmy Johns, Little Caesars, two Subways, and we've recently added a Panera.

But what of Illinois State Route 47 that runs through town, down to Huntley to the south and up to Hebron and the Wisconsin border to the north?  How many major 2 & 4 lane north-south highways could we build through town?  How many buildings would we have to knock down to provide actual competition?

Of course, after Route 47 was sold to the most well-connected bidder, free-market Libertarians will tell you that anyone would be free to build their own highway to compete.  Provided that they could buy the land, get the zoning approved, etc., etc., and do so while still keeping the entire enterprise profitable and do so against the interference Route 47's owners would throw in the way.  Outside of the hardcore Libertarian bubble, in the real world, normal people know that the existing road would remain the only one, maintained at a level that maximizes the owners' profit, not the commuters' convenience or safety.

Hope you have a sturdy 4x4.

Okay, so perhaps we maintain ownership of the roads and contract out the maintenance.  Sure, that sounds like the perfect middle ground.  Except that if the roads are to be maintained at the same level as the existing maintenance, you still have workers to pay, a vehicle & equipment fleet to maintain, and now tack on to that a customer service department, management, and profit margin.  If the company can't keep up, another one is found when their contract runs out, so there exists a motive to maintain the roads in good condition and provide customer service.

Despite the extra overhead and profit margin, the way things are being run currently private enterprise and may still undercut the costs of public works departments.  How the hell can that happen?  Corporations are owned and run by people very interested in making money or keeping their jobs, and to do that they need to cut costs and increase profits.  Highway maintenance is usually so far down on the list of topics important to voters that it hardly registers unless there's a major issue (snow plowing in Chicago or "Bridgegate" in New Jersey).  Even then, its importance hardly ever takes on the level of "hot-button issue."

Well, maybe it needs to be a bigger issue, proactively, before major catastrophes occur.  When roads between small towns in America were largely made of dirt ruts & gravel, the bicycle and the automobile brought with them a "Good Roads Movement."  Advocacy for quality paved roads was made through national organizations, media and the public paid attention to road works in their cities and towns, and nothing was taken for granted.

A half century later, the President Eisenhower started the Interstate Highway System, and far from the shamelessly socialistic symbol of government failure the right wing sees it as today it was a modern symbol of America's industrial ability.  We were proud of it.

Today, how many of us know who maintains all the roads between their home and their workplace?  Who's your township Highway Commissioner?  Do you even know which township you're in, or even whether or not your state governs on the township system?  I let my knowledge of such issues slip, and got socked with a $3.80 toll just to get onto the Interstate last year and roll along at 45 miles an hour because of a vacated construction zone.

If the public and the media paid any attention to our highway infrastructure (not the only crumbling and neglected infrastructure in America, so this applies to more than roads) beyond Chris Christie's foibles, we might actually attract and retain quality people, cut waste, patronage and corruption that costs us so dearly on our tax bills, and make great improvements in the quality of our roads while at the same time reducing the cost.

Perhaps, also, we can look at the fact that there are millions of people that make our convenient, first-world lives possible, and that the folks laying hot tarmac on a 100-degree day deserve better acknowledgement than honking and middle fingers from those stuck in traffic.  We thank our soldiers for national security, our firefighters and police for our safety, but anyone who helps build the infrastructure that makes our convenient and comfortable lives possible is an overpaid burden on our tax system? It's no wonder the people who can avoid it do so, and often that leaves the third-string job candidates left over to run these operations vital to our society's functioning the way we assume it should.

And we wonder why our mailboxes keep getting knocked down every time it snows...

The public owns the roads, and it is the public's neglect of their operations that has led to their deterioration and the high cost of not even keeping up with maintenance.  We get out of the government the effort that we put into it, and if we weren't so disdainful of it, if we got involved, the situation would improve.  It worked for us 50 and 100 years ago, when we went from simple dirt & gravel roads to the Interstate Highway System, the public and the government working hand-in-hand, taking a feeling of patriotism from improving our country for the better of all Americans.

Or we can take our cues from the modern anti-government Tea Party, get the government out of the road business, and we can slowly go back to something not much better than the dirt we started out on, a few of us feeling great in their rugged free-as-a-bald-eagle mountain man fantasy while the rest of us struggle to keep food on the table and the American economy out of third-world status in a transportation-strangled America.

I, obviously, think it's time to thank your hard working local highway maintenance & snowplow crew (unless they knocked down six out of 10 mailboxes on one block recently), show up at a city council or township meeting, call your state representatives, let the government know that we're watching the deals they make and we expect better from them, and follow up to see that they follow through.

And since we don't all have the time to do all of that, perhaps new Good Roads organizations could pool their resources and efforts in standing for the busy working class American and making their commutes a little more bearable.

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