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.