Staff Columnist

Without government, who will build the roads?

New ideas shed light on privately funded transportation infrastructure

Interstate 380 overheads from land near Third St. NW in northwest Cedar Rapids, Iowa, on Thursday, March 22, 2018. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
Interstate 380 overheads from land near Third St. NW in northwest Cedar Rapids, Iowa, on Thursday, March 22, 2018. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)

Without government, who will build the roads?

To some critics, that simple question represents the ultimate refutation of radically limited government. According to the argument, only a central power with taxing authority can possibly manage core government functions, like building and maintaining communal infrastructure.

While there is not yet a model from a privately funded national highway system, a string of recent news items offer examples of what post-government transportation infrastructure might look like, and who would pay for it.

Locally, the Iowa Department of Transportation this month proposed a plan to reduce the number of state-managed rest stops along the state’s highways. Closing 11 modern rest areas and 15 parking-only rest areas over the next 15 years could save the state about $30 million over 20 years.

Part of the reason for cutting highway rest areas is that alternatives, like privately owned gas stations, have become more common. A state report showed most rest stops have other 24-hour facilities located within 30 miles. In other words, private development has pre-empted the need for such an expansive network of state-owned transportation amenities.

Meanwhile down the road in Chicago, leaders announced a deal this month for a privately funded underground tunnel connecting O’Hare International Airport to the city’s downtown transit system.

The project is led by tech entrepreneur Elon Musk’s Boring Company. Rides in high-speed autonomous carriers are expected to take just 12 minutes, significantly shorter than existing options. The company would cover upfront and ongoing costs, and charge a fare of $20 to $25 per ride.

Other corporations are making plans to get in on the transit infrastructure game. Local government officials in the San Francisco area approved an agreement this month to pursue infrastructure updates funded by Facebook.

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The project would include rebuilding a defunct passenger rail bridge. Government and corporate leaders alike say traffic congestion is an impediment to growth for Facebook and other employers.

And pizza deliver giant Domino’s has launched “Paving for Pizza,” offering grants to local governments to fix streets. The company has already piloted the program in a handful of cities and is now taking nominations for more than a dozen additional sites.

Some dismiss the pothole program as a publicity stunt, but corporations have a very real interest in maintaining the roads. Domino’s says its drivers cover 12 million miles each week, and bad roads are costly. The American Society of Civil Engineers estimates road defects generate more than $120 billion in expenses for motorists yearly.

Infrastructure consumes a huge portion of our tax dollars. Local, state and federal transportation spending was estimated at $416 billion in 2014. In effect, those are subsidies to the companies who rely on public amenities.

So who will build the roads without government? The corporations who want to charge fares, transport employees and deliver pizzas.

• Comments: (319) 339-3156; adam.sullivan@thegazette.com

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