Today's Opinions, Tomorrow's Reality 

Breaking the Suburban Siege

By David G. Young

Washington, DC, August 31, 2004 --  

As Washington's Labor Day travelers fume in bumper-to-bumper congestion this Friday, they'd be well advised to consider how the history of their roadways might gide their way out of gridlock. At the busy intersection of the Capital Beltway and the old Leesburg Turnpike, where a dense edge city has grown out of pre-World War II farmland, the past, present, and the future come together in one place.

Both roadways will be jam packed. The 1960s-era capital Beltway, a dysfunctional relic of the mid-20th century Interstate Highway System, is a prime example of how the ideal of free, government-funded roads have utterly failed. Instead of paying to use the road with money, drivers pay with their time, as they move inch-by-inch at a tiny fraction of the posted speed limit. On the intersecting road, things are little better. A privately-built toll road connecting the port of Alexandria with the farming town of Leesburg in the 19th century, Leesburg Pike today is a free government-owned suburban thoroughfare with tightly-packed traffic that inches along not only at rush hour, but at most other times of the day as well.

The situation here on the Beltway may change markedly in the future, if Virginia state officials have their way. Plans are to allow private companies to pay for two new lanes in each direction on the clogged roadway, and charge motorists for the privilege of using them.1

Toll roads, of course, are nothing new. Drivers on Leesburg Pike were charged for its use almost two centuries ago. And as any driver on Delaware's logjammed section of Interstate 95 will tell you, toll roads are no cure for congestion. But what makes plans for the Beltway expansion significant, however, is a willingness to vary the price according to congestion. As more people use the lanes, the price of doing so goes up until it is high enough to dissuade people from entering. In theory, the remaining traffic will always flow smoothly.

Congestion-based pricing is a hot idea these days because it is a perceived cure for the fatal flaw of the free 20th century roadway -- a problem economists call the "tragedy of the commons." Any scarce resource that is shared by an overly large number of people gets over utilized until it is useful to no one. Free highways slow to a crawl. Subsidized water works get over-pumped until Western rivers go dry. And livestock overgraze the proverbial grassy common until it is a muddy wasteland.

America's modern suburbs, following this model, are simply the logical economic outcome of overuse of a shared scarce resource. In the 20th century, America's federal government handed out free Interstate highways, and sate and local governments built free local roads. The end result is that the market massively overbuilt suburban developments until the free road system was stretched beyond its limits.

In this sense, environmentalists are correct to believe that building new free roads will only encourage more development and gridlock. But they are wrong to oppose any new road building as a matter of principle. The Sierra Club's opposition to the Beltway project2 is nothing but obstructionist. The organization may wish to punish environment-choking sprawl-dwellers with ever-worsening gridlock, but it ends up inflicting terrible collateral damage on more eco-friendly urbanites besieged by a traffic-clogged suburban ring. To the extent that congestion-based road pricing may help ease this siege, it is a welcome idea.

To be sure, the plan is not without risk. Because Virginia's state government will manage the system, it will be subject to the political whims of the electorate. Americans have a strong sense of entitlement toward free roads. Politicians may be unwilling to allow prices to climb high enough to keep the lanes congestion-free, given that they will face charges of providing "roads for the rich."

For this reason, it would be much more beneficial if the Virginia state government would allow private corporations a free-hand in running the lanes as well as building them. Private companies, while not perfect, have a much better track record of providing products and services that deliver good value to the consumer. And nearby Leesburg Pike's history as a private road, privatizing the lanes would provide full closure on the cyclical history of road building around the nation's capital.


1. Washington Post, Virginia to Build Beltway Toll Lanes, August 27, 2004

2. Ibid.