Just the other day, I had a chance to pick the brains of Gabriel Roth, author of “Street Smart: Competition, entrepreneurship, and the future of roads.”
This guy is just what public transportation advocates need. They’re always saying that transit subsidies aren’t so bad when you consider the hidden cost of roads and freeways.
Well, Roth wants to lift the veil on those costs, and what’s more, he wants other people to make a profit on them.
“The fact that pricing of roads is poor, and that one has to have better pricing, has been realized for years,” he told me. The idea that roads and highways should be built and maintained using more of a business model of management is also an old idea.
So why write the book?
“I basically wrote it to try to raise the question, `Are roads really too important to be left to government? Should the transportation sector be run on political grounds, or should it be run the way one runs things like electrical or telephone services?’”
This idea is not so crazy as it sounds, at least if you equate sanity with popularity.
Our very own Metropolitan Transportation Commission is very much into high occupancy toll, or “HOT” lanes, which allow a private company to charge lone motorists to use a carpool lane by using electronic toll tags, aka, FasTrak.
Roth notes that the derisively-dubbed “Lexus Lanes” on State Route 91 between Orange and Riverside counties have gone a long way to reduce congestion. They do this by “congestion pricing,” i.e., you pay more money to scoot past that Friday night gridlock than you do to get by the slow traffic on Monday evening. That way, more traffic volume gets through on all lanes, but only those who can afford it get through faster.
But SR 91 and the Bay Area HOT lanes are just toying with the concept of privatizing roadways.
Roth posits that we need to go way beyond a few lanes of freeway and pretty much sell the whole shebang: “We’re talking about everything. Having a few private toll roads on top of the existing system is like having a few private schools and saying, `This is going to solve the school problem.’”
What, you mean, like, the street in front of my house?
“Local roads one could think of in terms of associations of property owners,” he said, referring to local roads in Sweden that are maintained by overgrown homeowner’s associations.
But getting past local roads, Roth would have us seek bids from entrepreneurs who would, say, repave San Pablo Avenue in the East Bay or El Camino Real on the Peninsula and promise to keep it up in exchange for a few cents for every car that happened along.
That could, in Roth’s perfect world, involve mandatory FasTrak transponders. “In Singapore, there is a little unit inside the vehicle,” Roth teaches us. “They have a debit card, and when they are going in the price zone, they have to put their card into the machine, and it is debited.”
It’s as easy as buying gas _ without stopping your car.
But this is America, after all, so some people might not like having FasTrak, a global positioning unit or Big Brother’s magic bracelet monitoring their every visit to the farm in Mendocino.
So Roth proposes a scaled-down version, which would continue to collect gas taxes and then give a portion of the proceeds to the companies responsible for building and keeping up the roads.
Still not convinced? Try this: “This actually happens in Britain. There are roads there which are let out to private concessionaires.”
Um, sorry. Not buying.
What about this: Mary Peters, recently appointed to replace the Bay Area’s own Norm Mineta as U.S. transportation secretary, wrote the forward to Roth’s book:
“One business at a time, one commuter at a time, congestion is robbing our nation, indeed the world, of productivity and quality of life,” she says, and anyone who knows what’s going on knows the current system isn’t fixing the problem.
“The same market forces that took us from Ma Bell’s black, boxy, static, rotary dial telephone to today’s era of wide consumer choice can relieve congestion, operate roadways more efficiently, and improve the safety of our highways.”
If you’re finally sold, drop me a line. I’ve got a bridge to Yerba Buena Island I’d like to sell you.