On May 23, 2013, a bridge which crosses the Skagit River in Washington State collapsed into the water below. This was a major thoroughfare on Interstate Five, which is the main north/south passage between California and Canada. The bridge carried an estimated 71,000 cars across it each day including billions of dollars in interstate and international truck cargo. The collapse of the bridge has caused massive interruptions in commercial and personal travel and could have been significantly more fatal. This incident is one which is not isolated to this particular bridge. As the President has pointed out for years in his appeals for more spending on infrastructure, our nations bridges are old and crumbling. The problem is that more spending will not fix our nation’s bridges. Our crumbling infrastructure is a systemic problem which is caused not by any particular lack of funding but rather by the socialist organization and operation of our nation’s roads and bridges.
The Skagit river bridge was classified as “fracture critical” which means that if a single component is destroyed or badly damaged, the entire bridge is likely to collapse. Does this make sense? In office buildings built by private companies we do not see fracture critical designs, they are built with multiple fail-safe mechanisms to prevent as much damage as possible in the event of unlikely accident or predictable weather. It is totally irresponsible for the government to allow bridges like this to exist. It is only by chance that this accident was not much more tragic. A 160-foot section of the bridge collapsed into the river below and only two cars happened to be on that section at the time of the collapse. Given that the Skagit River Bridge carries some 71,000 cars across it each and every day, had the timing been otherwise it would have been a horrific tragedy.
The most heart-wrenching aspect of this tragedy is that it was not an accident and it could not be fixed by simply spending more dollars within the current framework. It is an institutional problem that cannot be solved. The government owns and operates most bridges and highways in this country so it should not be a surprise to anyone that most bridges in this country are classified as either structurally deficient or obsolete.
A responsible taxpayer who pays all of his many taxes might be perplexed as to why in the world the federal, state, and local governments are unable to find enough money to maintain their own infrastructure. How can it be that after so much revenue is taken from the taxpayer, the government still does not perform its most basic functions? It is simply this: there is no incentive for bureaucrats to allocate enough money to these functions and there is no punishment for those who do not take the proper actions.
If the Department of Transportation actually allocated enough money to fix and update bridges then they would only be able to demand an equivalent amount of money for the next year’s budget. If on the other hand they allocated less than the necessary amount of funds to keep bridges up to date, then the bridges will deteriorate and the government can justify higher taxes and bigger budgets by claiming that they do not currently have enough money. In addition there is a severe lack of disincentives against such behavior. No one in the government lost their job and no one in the government lost any money due to this multi-million dollar accident. The most unbelievable fact is that inspectors assured the public that there was nothing structurally wrong with the bridge. So even after the government inspectors have cleared a bridge, it is liable to crash into the river below if one single overhead strut is broken. This shows painfully that a lack of economic disincentive to perform poorly has disastrous consequences for those who rely on government managed bridges.
If the solution is not better socialism then what should we turn to when our nation’s infrastructure is concerned? We must enter the free market. Imagine what the result would be if all of our nation’s bridges, currently owned and operated by the government, were sold to private companies. Imagine also that private companies were allowed to build new bridges when and where they saw fit. This would have fantastic implications for bridge safety, efficiency, and economic progress.
As far as safety is concerned, private bridge owners would never build a bridge that could collapse because this would amount to a massive loss on investment. If a bridge owner were to build a bridge he would have to invest fifty million dollars to cover the up-front costs. This money would be made back over several years by collecting tolls of the drivers that used the bridge. If the bridge owner decided to use a bridge design like the ones the government classifies as “fracture critical” then he would face an enormous downside risk of losing his investment before he began to realize any profit. This would be uneconomical so bridge owners would instead choose to make bridges safer by designing them with the correct amount of structural redundancy and fail-safe measures so that they and their investment would be protected in the event of an accident.
Another reason that bridges would be safer if they were privately owned is that, unlike the government, private bridge owners would be liable for any damages caused by negligence on their bridges. If a private bridge were to collapse, those injured or the families of those killed would be able to bring lawsuits against the bridge owner. This would be a huge disincentive as the prospect of dozens of multi-million dollar lawsuits would ruin a bridge owner or bankrupt a bridge company. When compared to the current system where no one can lose money and no individual or entity is ever held liable for mistakes or negligence, this obviously is a preferable alternative. This mix of profit incentives and disincentives would keep bridges safe and prevent negligence, ensuring that a privately-run system would be far less likely to have catastrophic failures such as the one seen on the Skagit River Bridge.
In addition to gains in safety, introducing bridges to the free market would make crossing rivers a much faster and more hassle free experience. Everyone who has a bridge in their daily commute knows that during rush hour, bridges can be the slowest place to be. This is because in contradiction to driving on land where there are dozens of possible alternative routes, bridges are choke points where all of the traffic is funneled into a handful and in some cases just one route across a river. What would the profit incentive of being able to charge drivers a fee for crossing lead to in terms of increased efficiency?
The first thing a profit incentive would do would be entice others to build more bridges. If there was only one bridge across a hundred-mile span of river that carried a large amount of traffic then other potential investors would want to build more bridges to capture some of the profit from those who need to cross. This would decrease traffic in general but rush hour traffic would still remain.
The answer to rush hour traffic would be something called peak-load pricing. This is the concept of using higher prices during peak usage hours to incentivize customers to spread out their usage more thoroughly across time. For example if the fare to cross a bridge is normally three dollars, it could be increased to six dollars between the hours of 6am-9am and 4pm-7pm. This would mean that drivers who had the leisure of choosing when to cross the bridge would do so during non-rush hours and only those who absolutely had to drive during those hours would remain. If the problem still remained, bridge owners would simply raise the price until only the maximum amount of drivers still chose to pay the toll. The prices set per hour would be up to the bridge owner and would be adjusted according to the most recent and relevant traffic data so that the bridge owner could maximize the number of cars which crossed the bridge per hour in order to maximize his own profits. In this way the incentives of the owner are directly in line with the incentives of the customers. Both want as many cars as possible to cross the bridge in the shortest amount of time.
Both of these effects of higher safety standards and increased efficiency will have extremely positive economic effects because a significant amount of our domestic shipping in this country is in the form of trucking; speeding up traffic across the tens of thousands of bridges across this country will decrease shipping costs. In addition, the amount of gasoline wasted by cars and trucks idling in rush hour or choke point traffic jams on bridges will decrease almost to zero. This would stimulate the economy further by lowering demand — and therefore the price — of gasoline and other fuels.
Some might object that they prefer to use bridges for free as they do now rather than have to pay a toll but this is misleading. To say that bridges are currently free is to miss the point entirely. While there is no direct cost that you pay when you cross a government run bridge, you have to pay for the extra gas spent sitting in traffic, the time spent sitting in traffic, and through taxes which are used to keep the bridges in the lackluster conditions in which we now find them. In either scenario a driver has to pay for bridges, the bridges that they get just happen to be much better when government turns the ownership and management over to private sector owners.