Why are Roads Publicly Administered?

Roads are managed this way in the U.S. and virtually everywhere else in the world, due to the infeasibility of having a multitude of small organizations managing local road systems. Back in the early days of motoring, roads were managed this way, with counties and private companies and individuals managing local road systems. It was inefficient, with little coordination between adjoining systems, and private toll road owners could and often did gouge motorists. Abutting property owners had uncertain access to other roads. Some systems were maintained well, and some were maintained poorly.

This is the reason why state highway departments were formed in the 1920s and 1930s. It was generally decided that a state road system as too large to be managed privately, so the roads and rights-of-way were built, bought and maintained by a state agency, that derived its revenues from user gasoline taxes, diesel taxes, vehicle registration taxes, license fees, etc. Construction was contracted out to private contractors. The result was in effect a public-private partnership. This quashes the notion expressed by a few people that public roads are somehow socialist.

The U.S. has 3.8 million miles of public highways, roads and streets, and there is no way that private business(s) could administer such a huge, diverse, far-flung system. It was widely tried, and it widely failed; history proved it a failure. Besides, the concept of public road rights-of-way goes back for many centuries in English law, practice and custom.

The topic of private railroads arises, but this also shows the large dissimilarity between public roads and railroads. Railroads in the U.S. are a closed limited-access system of less than 200,000 route miles. Also the question arises as to whether these railroads are really "free enterprise", since they are powerful entities that operate in monopolistic or nearly-monopolistic market conditions; they typically have few or no competitors.

The public sector builds most roads and highways mainly because the problems of land assembly and assigning of costs to the various users have been so difficult that market solutions would be impractical.

There are almost a million miles of private roads and thoroughfares on private property in the U.S., and 3.8 million miles of public roads. Public roads serve multiple usages. Most roads are used not just by automobiles, but also by trucks, busses, bicycles and pedestrians. Military vehicles and emergency vehicles use the roads too. Road transportation provides seamless travel to virtually every portion of land in the country.

In addition, nearly every section of public road right-of-way is used for public utilities. The air space over the road is used for electric and telephone lines, whose standards are usually placed in the right-of-way. In cities and suburbs, streets and roads also serve as rights-of-way for underground water, sewer and natural gas mains, and sometimes the electric and telephone lines are underground too. Often these underground utility lines are underneath the pavement itself.

In well-developed areas, public road rights-of-way often have sidewalks for pedestrians, and the rights-of-way are used for fire alarm boxes, fire hydrants, police call boxes, public telephones, mail boxes, and litter boxes. While some of these usages are minor, they are diverse and they all add up. This also explains why a significant portion of urban and suburban road funding comes from non-motoring funding sources.

The roads themselves serve as open space for the abutting properties. This function is necessary for light and air, and modern roads and streets provide much more open space than the narrow alley-streets of many pre-industrial cities.

It can be seen that public roads serve a wide diversity of uses for important traveling, utility and buffer purposes. These items all explain why most roads are publicly administered; no private concern could administer all these diverse usages, and then "meter" the road to provide revenue.

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By Scott M. Kozel, Roads to the Future, PENNWAYS

(Update 4-12-99 9:50 PM; counter 13,404)