Living in the Quad-Cities, one is undoubtedly familiar with the infamous bridge connecting Moline, IL and Bettendorf, IA. Usually when “the bridge” is the subject of conversation, one can assume an anecdote will be raised regarding one or more bad experiences on “the bridge”.
The majority of the hostilities involving the bridge pertain to the seemingly perpetual construction, maintenance, and congestion which the DOT and NTSB has jurisdiction. While many people will, in good faith, assume that the problem stems from an insufficient lack of funding of the I-74 bridge and other public infrastructure, good economic theory tells a different story.
The simple and systemic problem exists from the fact a monopoly (i.e. government) owns and operates the bridges and interstate highway system. Government is (in and of itself) a monopoly on force. No matter whether the consumers of the good are satisfied, money and resources are extracted from the private sector to fund this so-called “public good”.
If the users of a bridge or road (whose funds are taken by force through taxes) refuse to use it, do the operators (NTSB and DOT) go bankrupt? No, of course not. They have no feedback or incentive to monitor its operating margins or how it allocates the millions in capital expenditures.
Additionally, the I-74 bridge was built as a toll road back in the 1930s. Today, the consumers are deprived of internalizing the “cost” per trip of using the bridge (or any other road). This effect has lead to the I-74 bridge being one of the most traveled bridges in the Quad Cities. The overuse of the bridge is a classic example of the “free rider problem” of goods supplied by government sanctioned monopolies.
The I-74 bridge is old and indeed chalk full of problems. While it may be easy to assign these problems simply to the bridge’s age and lack of funding from tax revenue, ignoring the economics of how centrally planned (and to put it bluntly – socialist) our highway system is would be a mistake.
Many forms of mass transportation were private at one point in time in our country. The New York City subway system was built and managed privately for quite sometime. James J Hill built a profitable and private railroad line while competing against government funded lines. Is it heresy to propose that privatizing pieces of public land (such as roads and bridges) would be a bad thing?
Gov. Mitch Daniels of Indiana and John Stossel discussed this dichotomy in a recent episode on Stossel’s show on Fox Business Network. Bruce Benson, a Professor of Economics at Florida State University, also discussed the economics and history of roads in an interview with ReasonTv. Walter Block, a Professor of Economics at Loyola University in New Orleans, posits a brilliant argument in his book for the privatizing of roads and highways.
Government is a monopoly on force and the essence of its being informs us that everything it touches, manages, and operates will be worse than what the private sector can bring. I-74 is no exception to this rule. Maybe it is time to at least consider the case from an economic and ethical premise for private roads and highways.