Dear Governor Gilmore: A Plan to End Gridlock

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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 dois tap into that market-oriented policy wisdom that you tout and the "boldleadership" that you boasted of in the last election. Here's the plan:Allow private entrepreneurs to develop, own, and operate new transportationoptions in the state's transportation corridors as well as proposedevelopment of new corridors and initiate negotiations with the federalgovernment about the use of congestion tolls on existing interstatehighways. We said transportation options rather than roads because neitherwe 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 anenvironmental 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 chargewhatever tolls they wish. Work to bring affected homeowners together andcoordinate negotiations between them and the developers to ensure thathomeowners are paid to their satisfaction for the loss of property rightsincurred by new construction. Open negotiations with Maryland and the D.C.government to privatize bridge expansion. And finally, build a coalition offree marketeers and environmentalists to divide and conquer your opponents.

We know you're anxious to examine the political angles, but for just amoment, pretend that good policy, not good politics, is your chief concern.It's easy to diagnose the congestion problem. Roads are a scarce good ingreat demand, but we don't charge people for using them. Overcrowding isthe inevitable and eternal consequence. The way to alleviate congestion isto charge people sufficiently so that demand is reduced to allow free flowof 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 hasfailed repeatedly for two reasons. NIMBY ("Not-In-My-Back-Yard") activistshave proven capable of blocking new road construction. Witness theIntercounty Connector in Montgomery County. And even if you could marshalpolitical power to overcome NIMBY opposition, new roads fill up almost asquickly as they are finished because they are a "free good."

Allowing private development of new transportation capacity, the use ofcongestion tolls, and requiring compensation of affected neighborhoods toobtain their consent eliminates both the NIMBY and congestion problemssimultaneously. Instead of trying to roll homeowners politically (whichprobably wouldn't work anyway), you're going to acknowledge that homeownershave a legitimate right to enjoy their property free of the excessivenoise, fumes, and safety worries that accompany the construction of newroads. The Gilmore Administration will ensure that affected homeowners willbe paid to their satisfaction for the surrender of those rights.

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

Unfortunately, all the new capacity in the world will do little to addressthe bridges across the Potomac that are the chokepoints of regionaltransportation. Accordingly, arrange for a high-profile summit withGlendening and Williams. Sell them on the argument that privately owned andoperated bridges are the best ways out of this mess. For Williams, it meansthat he may well get a commuter tax indirectly from taxes on the privatebridge authorities. For Glendening, it means saving a lot of tax money. Ifthey balk, tell them that, hey, you've done your part. You can't make themfollow your lead, but it will be a cold day before Virginia taxpayers throwany more money down the transportation rat-hole.

OK, you've been patient, allowing us to drone-on about all this policymumbo-jumbo. What you want are political bullets, not policy-wonk paperairplanes. 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 thefreight for those that do. Your plan won't cost the state a nickel. Infact, the auction of road corridor rights will provide money for thecompensation of potential NIMBY opposition.

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

Third, hammer away at the fact that we're facing an emergency. Virginiadoesn't have time to turn over road planning and construction tonotoriously slow and expensive state bureaucrats. Private developers canget 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 noranti highway, mass transit, or growth. Rather, the proper role ofgovernment is to facilitate bargaining among the owners of rights in thosesituations, like transportation development, in which transactions costsare very high and contracts are difficult to negotiate.

Finally, yours is the only plan that respects the property rights ofhomeowners. Both the Democratic and Republican plans implicitly require thesteamrolling of neighborhood opposition. Your argument is that regionalgrowth is not the be-all and end-all of state policy. It's up to theneighborhoods of northern Virginia to decide how much transportationinfrastructure they're willing to tolerate.

If neighborhoods resist new construction, fine. The tollways will thus bynecessity be few and the prices steep. If they embrace new construction andare willing to bargain away some of their property rights, fine again.Either way, homeowners - not politicians - will have determined the priceof development. The other guys think that politicians ought to decide suchthings and that public subsidies should encourage and discourage privatedecisions. That sounds like a good fight to us.

And anyway, you've only got one term to worry about. Why not use itproductively? In the final analysis, good policy is good politics. Thatwould be your legacy.

Jerry Taylor and Peter Van Doren

Jerry Taylor is director of natural resources studies at the Cato Institute. Peter VanDoren is the editor of Regulation magazine.