Friday, June 9, 2017

A Personal Observation On Trump's "Infrastructure Week"

Yes, folks, you may have already forgotten it, but this has officially been Trump's "Infrastructure Week," highlighted by his proposal to privatize air traffic control in the US, and his trip to Cincinnati where he in general terms talked about the supposed virtues of privatizing highways, bridges, and airports, While he claims he wants to provide up to $200 billion in federal funding to draw forth a supposed $800 billion in private funding, the last time I checked his proposed budget supposedly cuts infrastructure funding.  So much for that big infrastructure boost!

As it is I want to comment on the proposal to privatize highways.  I shall briefly note that privatizing air traffic control might not be a bad thing, assuming that it is done properly.  Canada did so some years ago, and most reports have it that this has worked out pretty well.  Maybe it would in the US as well, although my confidence in Trump not to mess it up is pretty low.

Anyway, back to highways.  There has been some effort to do this in some states recently, with decidedly mixed results. But my observation is that over the longer haul it seems that outside of gated communities or private property, this does not work very well.  The historical record in the US is that if one goes back a few centuries, one finds many roads that were originally built and run by private companies.  Nearly all of these eventually reverted to some sort of government control at one level or another.  In particular in Virginia where I live, there were quite a few build in the 1700s, but during the 1800s they pretty much all reverted to some sort of government control. The private sector just did not do all that good of a job running them.

So, where is the personal angle in this?  Last weekend I learned that the street behind my house here in Harrisonburg, VA, Bruce Street, a minor street that is one way and in my block only has houses backing up to it, was once one of these privately owned highways that was later taken over by the city.  I learned this while visiting with my daughter Sasha the oldest building in Harrisonburg, the Thomas Harrison House, which was originally the private residence built probably in 1770 of the person for whom the city is named.  It is a small limestone structure that has not been previously opened to the public like this, but the city has taken ownership of it from the Methodist Church across the street that had owned it for a long time (it had been used as a law office most recently).  The city is planning on turning it into a museum, and they have had archaeologists from James Madison University excavating its basement, which was used as a kitchen during the days the structure was a house (up until the 1840s).  Anyway, they decided to open the basement up for the public to see as well as the many objects they have found there, including lots of animal bones.  So, visiting daughter and I made the visit to check it out.  The main archaeologist, Carole Nash, is a good friend and gave a most informative talk.

And that is where I learned about the history of Bruce Street, which is now only about 7 blocks long, cut off at one end by an elementary school and at the other by a public park.  Anyway, the Thomas Harrrison House is located just off the intersection of Bruce Street and Main Street, which also happens to be US 11, a highway that runs from Montreal to New Orleans, the old overland route of the French empire in North America (it is not called "US 11" on the other side of the Canadian border).  Now it happens to be the case that old timers here in the Shenandoah Valley call US 11, the "Valley Pike," short for turnpike. And indeed it was one of those highways that was originally built by a private company that collected tolls on it, until it was taken over by the federal government in the 1800s.  The word "turnpike" comes from the barrier at the toll booths back in those horse and buggy days.  A stick would would be stuck in the ground that could be turned and it would have another stick that would cross the road blocking it.  When people paid their toll, the toll keeper would turn the turnpike allowing them to proceed further.  Indeed, at least in Virginia one finds streets and roads that are actually called "turnpikes," and nearly all of them have this history of being once privately owned and run, but since taken over by some level of government, with Little River Turnpike in Northern Virginia being one such (I think in its case it is owned by the Commonwealth of Virginia, but not sure).

But I had never heard anybody talk about the not very long or impressive Bruce Street as being a "Pike."  But in fact as Carole informed us, in 1770, ten years prior to Harrisonburg being officially founded as Rocktown, that intersection was the main one in the area, the intersection of two major highways in the Valley, the Valley Pike, now US 11, running from southwest to northeast (or vice versa, if you prefer) and the road that was then called the Warm Springs Turnpike, indeed another privately owned and run highway, later taken over by the city and turned into the minor Bruce Street perpendicular to the now Main Street.   Carole indeed confirmed that this was its history, and it was clear that Mr. Harrison very consciously located his house near this intersection, where it also happens to sit on top of a spring, which we saw in the basement, houses back then usually being built that way so that they could withstand a siege by Native Americans (this was only a few years after the French and Indian War, the last battles of which took place in the Shenandoah Valley in 1764, the year after the war supposedly ended).

So, both the Valley Pike and the Warm Springs Turnpike in Harrisonburg are examples of highways once built and run privately, but since taken over by government.  The long term record is not all that favorable for privately owned highways that go any distance.

Barkley Rosser

Addendum on June 13:  I have done some further digging on the details of the history here, and some of the above is not quite accurate, although the general story of privately built roads in Virginia getting turned over to various units of government holds, indeed is pretty darned impressive.

So, there were no organized systems of road provision or maintenance in 1770 in the Shenandoah Valley when it appears the Thomas Harrison House was built. Nevertheless it was at the intersection of the two main trails that were being used at that time.  The establishment of private companies to build "plank roads" (out of wood) on these trails would occur in the 1830s, 1830 for the Warm Valley Turnpike Company, and in 1836 for the Valley Turnpike Company.  I do not have the date of the ending of the latter (although I can find it out), but the Warm Springs Turnpike Company ceased to exist in 1901, after which that road became owned by different levels of government for different parts of the turnpike.

As it was, the part of Bruce Street that goes behind my house one and a half blocks east of the intersection in question was never part of the turnpike. It turns out that the intersection was its northern most endpoint.  It headed west along Bruce Street but then turned southwest to follow what is now Virginia 42 for awhile and then other roads to finally end up in, big surprise, Warm Springs VA in Bath County, which is a site of bath houses, although Hot Springs a bit south of it is more famous as the site of the Homestead Resort, visited famously by Thomas Jefferson.

My source for all this is a Wikipedia entry on "Turnpikes in Virginia and West Virginia" that shows that during the 1800s there were well over 100 of these private companies formed to build or run turnpikes.  For the majority of them, there is no information on what they did or when they were founded or what happened to them, but for many there is considerable information on when and how and what current roads are what the built or run. The bottom line holds.  All of those many roads are now in the public sector, so the bottom line conclusion still holds, despite my having certain historical details a bit off.

Another Addendum, 6/15:  This is strictly amusingly personal, but yesterday there was a bear "lumbering" or "traipsing" or just plain "ambling" one block over from Bruce Street on Newman where Carole Nash lives, until animal  control  officers got it under control.  Big joke is that some people on FB claimed that maybe it was actually Carole's large and very furry brown Tibetan mastiff, Artemis, but Carole assured people that Artemis was inside at the time.  And anyway, the bear was black, not brown, :-).

Yet More, 6/17: I saw the arehaeologist, Carole Nash, this morning at our farmers' market, and she assured me that the bear was for real, apparently a young male, and that it ran up their street.  Apparently after it went into the historic Woodbine Cemetary, it crossed US 33 (aka Market Street) heading north. It was finally apprehended and stunned on Wolfe Street to be taken out of town somewhere.  And that I  think will be the final word on that, :-).


ProGrowthLiberal said...

"The private sector just did not do all that good of a job running them."

Mark Thoma a few years ago featured some of the excellent discussions of how selling toll roads to the private sector was often done at prices well below the present value of the future tolls - which is one of the things I fear about the Trump privatization plans.

His most infamous troll - Patrick R. Sullivan - posted a ton of comments trying to justify these give aways. One of the claims was that private companies would run highways more efficiently. These claims it seems were never backed up with any actual research. said...


Bringing it up to date, the two major private toll roads that I know of are the Indiana toll road (I90), privatized a few years ago, and the Greenway in Northern VA that runs from Dulles Airport to Leesburg. I have not ridden on the Indiana toll road for a few years, but I recently saw someone on the internet saying that it is not being maintained well, and that the rest areas are just an awful mess.

The Greenway is a road that was privately built like the VA turnpikes. It charges very high toll rates and has little traffic. Apparently there is a setup that at some point it will revert to state ownership, although apparently the date of that has been extended. I have only ridden on it once, and it was in good shape, but then, it has very little traffic, which was the case when I rode on it. So, somehow either the privateers will charge very high tolls or they will not do decent maintenance, at least that seems to be what is going on in these two

ProGrowthLiberal said...

ASCE says we need $4.6 trillion in infrastructure investment over the decade. That is $460 billion per year which for a $19 trillion economy represents 2.4% of GDP. Doable if we want to but maybe we should forego Trump's tax cuts for the rich and actually raise their taxes. It would speed up their travels to work after all.

Eubulides said...

Yes, but what about all the sewer systems??? Think Miami..... said...

Sewers are the foundation of civilization. There has not been much talk about them in the current debates over infrastructure, but we clearly need a lot of investment in water systems, with the situation in Flint, MI only the tip of the iceberg. There has apparently been a serious decline in water quality in quite a few US communities.