Dear Governor Gilmore: A Plan to End Gridlock

August 28, 1999 • Commentary

Dear Governor Gilmore. By now, you’re probably wondering what you did to deserve the political firestorm over hellish highway congestion in northern Virginia. Road construction programs take lots of time and lots of planning, and neither the Wilder nor Allen administrations did Virginia any favors by ignoring the mounting gridlock. While the present mess is their legacy to Virginia, you’re the one left holding the bag.

Well, there’s still time to turn the political tide. What you need to do is tap into that market‐​oriented policy wisdom that you tout and the “bold leadership” that you boasted of in the last election. Here’s the plan: Allow private entrepreneurs to develop, own, and operate new transportation options in the state’s transportation corridors as well as propose development of new corridors and initiate negotiations with the federal government about the use of congestion tolls on existing interstate highways. We said transportation options rather than roads because neither we nor the government knows what the highest valued use of land would be. It might be roads, but it might be transit or it might be vacant if an environmental group outbids other potential users (don’t worry, governor; transit is a real money loser, it won’t win the bidding).

Give the winners of the transportation option auction the right to charge whatever tolls they wish. Work to bring affected homeowners together and coordinate negotiations between them and the developers to ensure that homeowners are paid to their satisfaction for the loss of property rights incurred by new construction. Open negotiations with Maryland and the D.C. government to privatize bridge expansion. And finally, build a coalition of free marketeers and environmentalists to divide and conquer your opponents.

We know you’re anxious to examine the political angles, but for just a moment, pretend that good policy, not good politics, is your chief concern. It’s easy to diagnose the congestion problem. Roads are a scarce good in great demand, but we don’t charge people for using them. Overcrowding is the inevitable and eternal consequence. The way to alleviate congestion is to charge people sufficiently so that demand is reduced to allow free flow of vehicles. This is as elementary and undeniably true as the law of gravity.

Building our way out of this mess has been tried again and again and has failed repeatedly for two reasons. NIMBY (“Not‐​In‐​My‐​Back‐​Yard”) activists have proven capable of blocking new road construction. Witness the Intercounty Connector in Montgomery County. And even if you could marshal political power to overcome NIMBY opposition, new roads fill up almost as quickly as they are finished because they are a “free good.”

Allowing private development of new transportation capacity, the use of congestion tolls, and requiring compensation of affected neighborhoods to obtain their consent eliminates both the NIMBY and congestion problems simultaneously. Instead of trying to roll homeowners politically (which probably wouldn’t work anyway), you’re going to acknowledge that homeowners have a legitimate right to enjoy their property free of the excessive noise, fumes, and safety worries that accompany the construction of new roads. The Gilmore Administration will ensure that affected homeowners will be paid to their satisfaction for the surrender of those rights.

The proper role of government is to facilitate the bargaining between the agent of the potential beneficiaries (the road developer and road users) and losers (those living near the corridor) so that if the benefits exceed the losses, the change from one land use to another transition is facilitated. We recognize that obtaining the consent of affected residents through traditional negotiation methods would be time consuming because of strategic holdouts, but a technique used in the development of downtown Arlington offers an alternative. In the 1980s when the metro went through, the areas near stations faced the analogous problem of transition from residential to more intensive land uses. Commercial developers negotiated with homeowners as a group. The result was compensation of homeowners about twice the value of their homes as residences sold one at a time.

Unfortunately, all the new capacity in the world will do little to address the bridges across the Potomac that are the chokepoints of regional transportation. Accordingly, arrange for a high‐​profile summit with Glendening and Williams. Sell them on the argument that privately owned and operated bridges are the best ways out of this mess. For Williams, it means that he may well get a commuter tax indirectly from taxes on the private bridge authorities. For Glendening, it means saving a lot of tax money. If they balk, tell them that, hey, you’ve done your part. You can’t make them follow your lead, but it will be a cold day before Virginia taxpayers throw any more money down the transportation rat‐​hole.

OK, you’ve been patient, allowing us to drone‐​on about all this policy mumbo‐​jumbo. What you want are political bullets, not policy‐​wonk paper airplanes. So here’s how to sell the program. First, emphasize that drivers ought to pay directly for the roads they use. It is neither fair nor efficient to tax people who don’t use I66 to pay the freight for those that do. Your plan won’t cost the state a nickel. In fact, the auction of road corridor rights will provide money for the compensation of potential NIMBY opposition.

Second, yours is the only plan that will actually alleviate congestion in any meaningful way; score the opposition for embracing more of the same policies that delivered gridlock in the first place.

Third, hammer away at the fact that we’re facing an emergency. Virginia doesn’t have time to turn over road planning and construction to notoriously slow and expensive state bureaucrats. Private developers can get the job done a lot faster and more efficiently than can federal, state, or municipal bureaucracies.

Fourth, declare that the proper role of government is to be neither pro nor anti highway, mass transit, or growth. Rather, the proper role of government is to facilitate bargaining among the owners of rights in those situations, like transportation development, in which transactions costs are very high and contracts are difficult to negotiate.

Finally, yours is the only plan that respects the property rights of homeowners. Both the Democratic and Republican plans implicitly require the steamrolling of neighborhood opposition. Your argument is that regional growth is not the be‐​all and end‐​all of state policy. It’s up to the neighborhoods of northern Virginia to decide how much transportation infrastructure they’re willing to tolerate.

If neighborhoods resist new construction, fine. The tollways will thus by necessity be few and the prices steep. If they embrace new construction and are willing to bargain away some of their property rights, fine again. Either way, homeowners — not politicians — will have determined the price of development. The other guys think that politicians ought to decide such things and that public subsidies should encourage and discourage private decisions. That sounds like a good fight to us.

And anyway, you’ve only got one term to worry about. Why not use it productively? In the final analysis, good policy is good politics. That would be your legacy.

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