Until now I hadn't quite grasped the fact that that the public no longer owns all the public roads:
Transurban Group, Australia's second-biggest toll road owner, agreed to buy Virginia's Pocahontas Parkway for $611 million, gaining its first U.S. motorway.
Transurban bought the rights to manage, operate and maintain the 8.8-mile (14 kilometer) highway known as State Route 895 for 99 years, the Melbourne-based company said in a statement today....
Transurban is among companies attracted to the reliable cash flows from toll roads that it estimates will spur some $200 billion of deals worldwide in the next 10 years. Macquarie Infrastructure Group and Cintra SA got state approval in March for their $3.85 billion bid for Indiana's toll road as U.S. states sell rights to their highways to pay debt.
...There are $25 billion of private investments proposed for new and existing toll roads in six U.S. states including Virginia, Texas and Oregon, according to a report last month by the Los Angeles-based Reason Foundation, which advocates for such privatization....
The Reason Foundation, a libertarian outfit, certainly makes this deal sound win-win, as does Transurban -- we pay off the state's debt! we keep the road repaired! we build new roads! we make a profit! the state makes a profit! -- but, er, I seem to recall similar rosy promises from Chris Whittle about for-profit schools, and that didn't exactly pan out.
Admittedly, this is different -- unlike schools, toll roads take in money. So maybe this won't be a financial disaster like Whittle's Edison Schools.
But if the idea does take hold, eventually the Reason folks are going to start proposing some really libertarian approaches to highway maintenance. For instance, even now the government will control toll increases on the Pocahontas. Why should that be the case? Why shouldn't Transurban charge whatever the market will bear? If a few poor people and other losers can't afford to go to work, well, tough. I'm sure what their betters can afford to pay will more than make up for it.
Why not run for-profit roads like for-profit medical care? We can have concierge service in a guaranteed fast lane that's flawlessly maintained, along with other amenties, all for a premium fee; another lane could be the budget plan -- less expensive (though still pricey), but watch out for the potholes!
Or Transurban could run the road like a (barely) regulated cable-TV monopoly: If you want to drive the Pocahontas, you have to pay tolls for several other roads you never drive on -- no a la carte driving!
Come on, folks. Greed is good. Think big.