Let’s muse about toll roads, shall we?
We have an unusual system here in Texas. There aren’t a lot of toll roads, but there are some. The ones that we have in North Texas as all administered by the NTTA, the North Texas Tollway Authority. The NTTA is a non-profit corporation operating under the aegis of the Texas Department of Transportation. NTTA has to raise its own money, run its own books, and operate on its own revenues. I moved at the start of the year and began driving the Dallas North Tollway as my everyday commute, and I’ve noticed a few things.
The main thing is that almost as soon as I started driving it, the NTTA gained the power to set its own speed limits. It did the utterly astonishing thing of following the state law. They did a traffic survey, determined the “prevailing speed” on the road, and actually set the speed limits based on that. The Dallas North Tollway went from 55 mph to 65 mph, and the George Bush Turnpike went from 55 mph (I think) to 75.
The results were, well, astounding. Two things happened. One, traffic improved. The people who didn’t want to drive 65 actually moved to the right instead of poking along in the left lane fuming with indignation. The second thing is that the speed traps disappeared. What didn’t happen is that people didn’t go from driving 10 mph over (65) to 10 mph over (75.) The vast majority of people now drive right at the speed limit, some 5 mph over in the left lane, some 5 mph under in the right lane. The really amusing thing is that almost no one drives 75 on the George Bush, and almost everyone drives 70 or so.
The law says that this is how speed limits are supposed to be set in Texas. This is virtually never how speed limits are set. You know why? It’s right up there. Speed traps. There’s no revenue profit in sitting a state trooper on the Tollway anymore. They’ve all moved to the side streets. You know, the ones where the speed limits are set by some other method than conducting a traffic survey (actually measuring the average speed) and setting it with the results.
The second thing that I’ve noticed is how little congestion there is on the Tollway now. The NTTA has made significant changes to create this situation. They took out the tollbooths — all the tolls are collected by mail, using electronic metering, reading RFID tags or license plates. They promote the RFID method by making the toll cheaper if you have an account with them. (BTW, if you are on paper dealer tags or out of state plates, tolls are now free. Yay!) More importantly, there are crews ready to provide roadside assistance if anyone breaks down. They are there in minutes, get the vehicle off the road, and get the tire changed or provide some gas if the car can be put back on the road.
And what does that mean? More people use the road because it is likely to not be backed up. That means more tolls, which means more revenue.
The NTTA gets more revenue by making it faster and safer to use its roads. The state gets more revenue by artificially lowering speed limits, writing tickets, and loses money by providing services. Is is any surprise that the difference between the two is so stark? But, you know, us libertarians are still insane for thinking that private roads would ever work. That’s like thinking that you could build something like the internet by relying on private telecoms and peering agreements rather than complete government control over the wires.