Monday, December 10, 2007

Review of "Street Smart", edited by Gabriel Roth

This book is an excellent collection of arguments and information that are favorably disposed toward privatization of roads. Various aspects of privatization in different aspects of road systems throughout the world are presented and discussed. While the pros and cons are analyzed, the conclusions argue that roads will benefit through increased private sector involvement.

The largest flaw in this book is that it is blind to the important question as to whether the real issue is one of proper management and delivery of road services. While it is easy to cite examples where privatization outperformed public sector road operations, nowhere is there recognition of the alternative analysis that the problem may be one of managerment and operational systems. Roads are a public commodity which the public depends upon for access to work and pleasure, delivery of goods enjoyed by all, use by emergency services, etc. Roads thus are a public good. The private sector, by definition, must secure a profit in order to invest in roads. While it is argued, often accurately, that the motivation for profit causes improved management, it is also true that the public sector could similarly seek to improve management and operations and do so at less cost, as the need for a profit does not exist within the public sector.

This book provides good arguments that something major is required for our roads to improve. The status quo is doomed. Congestion is noted where interstate highway travel increased by 38% from 1991 to 2001 while the miles of interstate highways increased by 5%. Congested roads lessen our quality of life being, when stuck in traffic, costs businesses time and money having employees less available, and literally wears people out. In 11 large urban areas, the average times of commuting rose from 24 minutes in 1982 to 55 minutes in 1992 to 62 minutes in 2002.

The book appropriately criticizes the maze of revenue sources for roads and argues about the inequities of the lack of a correlation between those paying for roads and thus using roads.
The equity issue though needs to note that roads serve all directly and indirectly. The book correctly notes that revenue sources are insufficient and pose long term dilemmas from issues including a lack of proper maintenance and massive long term congestion worries. The solution may be better direct revenues for road needs.

Innovative ideas are presented in this book. For instance, rather than turning tolls over to a private sector entity, tolling authorities could sell shares to investors. Insurance companies could issue drivers licenses and vehicle registrations, thus ensuring that those issued these documents are insured. GPS technology could calculate miles of roads used and assist in tackling the equity issues. Maintenance that is contracted out should follow performance standards. This book is a great resource on road issues.


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