Yes, folks, you may have already forgotten it, but this has officially been Trump’s “Infrastructure Week,” highlighted by his proposal to privatize air traffic control in the US, and his trip to Cincinnati where he in general terms talked about the supposed virtues of privatizing highways, bridges, and airports, While he claims he wants to provide up to $200 billion in federal funding to draw forth a supposed $800 billion in private funding, the last time I checked his proposed budget supposedly cuts infrastructure funding. So much for that big infrastructure boost!
As it is I want to comment on the proposal to privatize highways. I shall briefly note that privatizing air traffic control might not be a bad thing, assuming that it is done properly. Canada did so some years ago, and most reports have it that this has worked out pretty well. Maybe it would in the US as well, although my confidence in Trump not to mess it up is pretty low.
Anyway, back to highways. There has been some effort to do this in some states recently, with decidedly mixed results. But my observation is that over the longer haul it seems that outside of gated communities or private property, this does not work very well. The historical record in the US is that if one goes back a few centuries, one finds many roads that were originally build and run by private companies. Nearly all of these eventually reverted to some sort of government control at one level or another. In particular in Virginia where I live, there were quite a few build in the 1700s, but during the 1800s they pretty much all reverted to some sort of government control. The private sector just did not do all that good of a job running them.
So, where is the personal angle in this? Last weekend I learned that the street behind my house here in Harrisonburg, VA, Bruce Street, a minor street that is one way and in my block only has houses backing up to it, was once one of these privately owned highways that was later taken over by the city. I learned this while visiting with my daughter Sasha the oldest building in Harrisonburg, the Thomas Harrison House, which was originally the private residence built probably in 1770 of the person for whom the city is named. It is a small limestone structure that has not been previously opened to the public like this, but the city has taken ownership of it from the Methodist Church across the street that had owned it for a long time (it had been used as a law office most recently). The city is planning on turning it into a museum, and they have had archeologists from James Madison University excavating its basement, which was used as a kitchen during the days the structure was a house (up until the 1840s). Anyway, they decided to open the basement up for the public to see as well as the many objects they have found there, including lots of animal bones. So, visiting daughter and I made the visit to check it out. The main archeologist, Carole Nash, is a good friend and gave a most informative talk.
that is where I learned about the history of Bruce Street, which is now only about 7 blocks long, cut off at one end by an elementary school and at the other by a public park. Anyway, the Thomas Harrrison House is located just off the intersection of Bruce Street and Main Street, which also happens to be US 11, a highway that runs from Montreal to New Orleans, the old overland route of the French empire in North America (it is not called “US 11” on the other side of the Canadian border). Now it happens to be the case that old timers here in the Shenandoah Valley call US 11, the “Valley Pike,” short for turnpike. And indeed it was one of those highways that was originally built by a private company that collected tolls on it, until it was taken over by the federal government in the 1800s. The word “turnpike” comes from the barrier at the toll booths back in those horse and buggy days. A stick would would be stuck in the ground that could be turned and it would have another stick that would cross the road blocking it. When people paid their toll, the toll keeper would turn the turnpike allowing them to proceed further. Indeed, at least in Virginia one finds streets and roads that are actually called “turnpikes,” and nearly all of them have this history of being once privately owned and run, but since taken over by some level of government, with Little River Turnpike in Northern Virginia being one such (I think in its case it is owned by the Commonwealth of Virginia, but not sure).
But I had never heard anybody talk about the not very long or impressive Bruce Street as being a “Pike.” But in fact as Carole informed us, in 1770, ten years prior to Harrisonburg being officially founded as Rocktown, that intersection was the main one in the area, the intersection of two major highways in the Valley, the Valley Pike, now US 11, running from southwest to northeast (or vice versa, if you prefer) and the road that was then called the Warm Springs Turnpike, indeed another privately owned and run highway, later taken over by the city and turned into the minor Bruce Street perpendicular to the now Main Street. Carole indeed confirmed that this was its history, and it was clear that Mr. Harrison very consciously located his house near this intersection, where it also happens to sit on top of a spring, which we saw in the basement, houses back then usually being built that way so that they could withstand a siege by Native Americans (this was only a few years after the French and Indian War, the last battles of which took place in the Shenandoah Valley in 1764, the year after the war supposedly ended).
So, both the Valley Pike and the Warm Springs Turnpike in Harrisonburg are examples of highways once built and run privately, but since taken over by government. The long term record is not all that favorable for privately owned highways that go any distance.