LP Monday Message: Toll roads

August 15, 2011

Dear Friend of Liberty,

Last week I issued a statement that included a criticism of Texas Governor Rick Perry’s support for toll roads. Several people asked for an explanation about my stance on toll roads and I can understand why.

The Libertarian Party platform says "We seek to divest government of all functions that can be provided by non-governmental organizations or private individuals." Private toll roads could fit that bill. Some free-market think tanks have promoted toll roads as a positive option.

Don’t privately-run toll roads sound more libertarian than government roads?

So what’s up? Why am I opposed to toll roads?

If we were talking about an open system where private companies compete with each other to build roads, buying their own right-of-way, taking the risks and earning the profits, I’d be a supporter.

But that’s absolutely not what we’re talking about. In almost every case, "toll roads" are a mechanism where government remains in charge, but manages to take more of your money. It’s a slick sales job to fool people.

In Texas, the plan was for a single private monopoly company to get the concession to build and maintain roads. No competition allowed. Even the government couldn’t compete. That meant that the government would intentionally allow the traditional non-toll roads to decay, and they would lower the non-toll speed limits, in order to fulfill their agreement. But don’t think for a minute they would lower the gas taxes and other taxes used for those roads. You’d be paying just as much tax, and the government would intentionally be delivering less.

You might end up having to drive on the toll road, where the owning company (thanks to its government-guaranteed monopoly) could charge you however much it wanted.

I’m all for corporate profits — but not when it’s a government-guaranteed monopoly.

It was also very questionable how much the private company was "taking the risks." If things didn’t work out, it was very likely that the government would bail out the private company with tax dollars, and then take over the road. (While continuing to levy both taxes and tolls.)

I don’t want our state and federal governments to have more revenue and more debt. I want them to have less of both. I also don’t want them picking out their cronies’ companies to be the big beneficiaries of monopoly concessions. I hate it when politicians dictate winners and losers.

I don’t want the government to increase the financial burden on citizens, in order to create an illusion of privatization. Tolled highways can cost twice as much to build per added lane-mile as non-tolled roads, and ten times more than ground-level thoroughfares.

In the northeast, many people have listened to politicians talk about how tolls were only going to be charged until the road was paid for, and then the tolls would be removed. Yet somehow, the road never quite got paid for, or they changed the rules, and the tolls remained indefinitely.

One more thing: In Texas, Rick Perry planned to use eminent domain to seize huge amounts of private land for the toll road network. I strongly disagree with eminent domain seizures.

Unfortunately, the government almost completely controls the building and maintenance of roads in America. And it’s really hard, if not impossible, to privatize it "a little bit." That just ends up making it more complicated, corrupt, and expensive.

Maybe someday, someone will come up with a toll road plan that really makes sense from a Libertarian point of view. Rick Perry absolutely failed to do that in Texas.


Wes Benedict
Executive Director
Libertarian National Committee

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