Your Road Is Ready, Sir

There aren’t many goods and services in this country that you can’t significantly upgrade if you have the money.

You don’t like your municipal golf course? Join a private country club.

Don’t like sending your kids to the public school? Pay for private school.

Don’t like flying coach? Fly first class or, if that’s not good enough, fly private.

Don’t like your marginal neighborhood? Buy a more expensive house with better neighbors.

Etc., etc., etc.

But what about driving your car? Let’s say it’s a holiday weekend and you want to get from Point A to Point B, which is 50 miles away. It’s too close to fly. You could have someone else drive you — but still, you’re sharing the same road as everyone else, and on a holiday weekend especially, it’s bound to be really crowded. Wouldn’t it be nice to — well, upgrade to a better road?

That day may be coming. Consider this proposal to put private lanes on the New Jersey Turnpike:

On Monday, the State Senate president, Richard J. Codey, a Democrat of Essex County, unveiled his proposal for a private company to build an extension on the turnpike from Exit 8A to Exit 6 and on the Garden State Parkway from Exit 82 down to an exit in the 30s for drivers willing to pay extra to avoid traffic.

At the same time, State Senator Raymond J. Lesniak, a Democrat from Union County who is chairman of the Economic Growth Committee, offered his own twist, suggesting that the new lanes be reserved for buses and trucks.

Both senators said that the state could not afford a pending $2.7 billion expansion of the turnpike and that bringing in a private company would be the fastest way to raise the money without increasing tolls or taxes.

This is a very muscular form of congestion pricing, which charges more to use the same road at different times of day as opposed to charging more for a different road entirely. It is obviously far more costly (and probably contentious) than, for instance, the first-class line at airport security checkpoints. We are very accustomed in this country to roads that can be used by just about anyone at any time. Could this possibly fly?

It is fun to try to think of other goods and services that cannot be upgraded with more money. One that comes to mind is moviegoing. Variable pricing is not practiced very robustly in the U.S. If you want to go to a sold-out movie on a Friday night, there’s no upgrade substitute as far as I know. Sure, you can build your own screening room, but how do you get hold of a print of the new movie?

Other examples of un-upgradable goods and services?


jsq: While I am quite sympathetic to the need for a better rail system, a French or Japanese system is not easily transplantable to the US. We have NIMBYs and a really screwed-up permitting process. High-speed rail is also uniquely unsuited to existing right of way. Our existing railroads were built flat and curvy, in order to accomodate the limited power developed by a steam locomotive. High-speed rail lines are very straight for stability, but do not have to be nearly as flat, due to the high-powered electric locomotives. To get high-speed rail, we would have to build a new railroad infrastructure in many places, and run lines over some very expensive million-dollar homes. Good luck pushing eminent domain.

There are actually very few things that cannot be upgraded. The main issue is that the minimum increment for upgrading is very high, and requires significant leadtime rather than being done spur-of-the-moment. Building a screening room and renting movies from the distributor is one example. Flying to Europe for legal prostitution is another.


Sven Brendel

RE Jeff, #82

Roads are a public good, which the market can't handle. Your plan would lead to a society where many see vastly reduced mobility, but only the elite fares better. I think the audience of this media feature is economically literate enough to understand why public goods, such as roadways cannot all be sold to the market, so I won't go over why exactely privatizing roads is a really, really bad idea.


Doesn't every movie theater now let you pre-order tickets online, for an added surcharge? Ordering online won't let you upgrade your experience when you get there (that's what the overpriced snacks are for) but it can determine whether or not you will get a seat for a show that's going to sell out.


#33 Two interesting things about the M6 toll road in the UK..

Trucks don't use it - they stick to the original road - so pricing must be such that less congestion isn't worth it

I believe most of the toll goes to the builders - i.e. that government allows private firms to benefit in return for building it


I use my Helicopter...

Sven Brendel

The problem with all the upgrading is that augemnts inequality and further seperates the social classes, causing society to be less cohesive and democratic. Furthermore, allowing the well-off to rely less on public services, be it schools or highways, reduces their support for public funding for these services. Since they have more political clout, this reduction in support for funding will likely lead to actually lower funding for these goods. The result? Lower quality public institutions for those stuck with the affluent advocating less and less funding for them, as they are becoming less dependent upon them.

Kevin in McLean, VA

The Commonwealth of Virginia is just starting to build HOT (High Occupancy Toll) lanes on our famous, and very congested Capital Beltway (aka I-495). I think that they may be doing the same on I-95 south of DC and I-395 as well. These are among the most congested routes in this area during rush hour. The tolls will vary by time of day and will be pretty expensive (over $25 in some instances). It'll be interesting to see how popular these are when they're ready to roll. There was a little bit of controversy about them when VDOT announced the plan and now that they've started building them it turns out that a lot of trees that were noise buffers for people close to the beltway are being taken down (and this is happening in some expensive neighborhoods). I'm just happy that I have a reasonable commute to work and the ability to telecommute if I need/want to.


Why could we make the national highways system in the first place, and now we are unable make new, more limited, roads. Because there are many more people buying gas and paying taxes the per-person cost should be lower, right? Cost per node goes down as the network expands, unless I'm missing something. This is why we have a million channels on TV, and cheap cell phones. This is why there are way too many McDonalds.

This is more about market fundamentalism than good governance. Government could be effective if the public was willing to get off the couch to and go to the polling places to vote out ineffective politicians.


The quality of political representation is not improved proportionately with the money spent...need I offer examples?


Oklahoma City did this about fifteen years ago. When it opened, there were just a few cars on the new road, and everyone else drove the regular road that had been there for years. The primary differences were stop signs/stoplights (one or two per mile: not very many, even if you're going five or more miles) and traffic (not bad vs almost none). I assumed it would go bust.

Now, from what I've seen on rare visits, people have decided that saving maybe two minutes and having somewhat less traffic is worth the money. I still don't get it -- but I don't mind having the more-money-than-sense people driving on a different road. ;-)


In Seoul, South Korea, almost all theaters have special viewing or VIP theaters in their multiplexes. These are accessible only via membership and include larger seats, in theater concession, and limited seating.

It's an idea that could easily spread.


Don't like your kids? Send them to orphanage and buy better ones.

Don't like your wife/husband? - Divorce and buy a better one.


The DMV line can be upgraded without extra cost. It just takes a little planning here in Tampa. They take reservations by phone or internet. I just renewed my driver's license last month and it was sweet being called up to the front of that long, long line.


This already exists in So Cal. On the 90 freeway there is a toll lane often refered to as the "Lexus Lane".


Not so far-fetched:

One of the movie theatres here in Australia has a premium theatre, for which tickets cost 1.5 X the norm on weekdays and matinees, and almost 3 X the norm on weekend evenings.

One gets extra large comfortable seats, with a maximum of 30 in the theatre, providing a quieter, more personal experience. Food (restaurant quality) and drink can be ordered/paid for beforehand and will be delivered by the waitstaff directly (and quietly) to your seat.


Courts? If you view courts as providing a dispute settlement service requested by one aggrieved party, then maybe that's an example. I guess you can appeal, but the costs you pay are for representation in the court and you can upgrade that, but the court itself - it'd be illegal to buy yourself a more sympathetic judge or jury.

There's tolls on some bigger roads, but for most local roads surely there is no option.

Emergency medical treatment - in practice there's no time to shop around.

The roller skating rink near my house is the only one for miles and miles.

Swimming pools - often there are only municiple ones around, and the prices are all pretty much the same. I've never heard of an expensive private one with perfumed water or whatever.

Libraries. Are there any expensive private libraries?

Kids playgrounds is an interesting one. When I was young there never was any privately owned indoor playgrounds, and now there are plenty. It'd be interesting to see how that market came about, especially in the presence of increasingly snazzy free public playgrounds. I guess the indoor aspect is the key.

Museums. They vary in price and quality, but they seem to monopolise topics. If you want to go to a modern art museum, or natural history museum chances are your city has only one credible one.

Urban public transport. Some cities have first class carriages on their suburban trains, but most places you can't pay more to go on a more comfy bus across town.

Taxis. There are limos you can ring up and hire, but in most cities if you get a cab on a street the price is calculated by the meter according to a formula that is the same for all cabs.

Bicycle paths. I never heard of a toll bicycle path.

Foot paths. Never heard of a toll for one of those either.

Air. I guess you can buy clean air if you like, but it's more for industrial use rather than breathing.

Okay, that's fifteen minutes worth. There must be heaps.

Oh yeah, Police on an individual basis. A government can upgrade the police services they get, but an individual can't. Security guards maybe, but these lots of stuff that police do that security guards can't.

Parking spaces. Sometimes you can go for the expensive multi-level parking, but in most areas there is no upgrade option.


Scott Beveridge

This is insane. Why not take that money, invest it in improving public transportation and take more cars OFF the road.


Alfred Bester wrote a book in which the richest people one-upped each other while arriving at a party: antique cars, horse coaches, litter bearers, balloon, etc. The hero was preceded by a crew laying track, so he could arrive on his own train on his own railroad.

So, how about we upgrade the road network to a railroad network that stops in every significant and most insignificant towns, with at least daily service.

You know, like the one we used to have up into the

first half of the 20th century, but nobody seems to remember. More efficient, less pollution, fewer accidents. Want door-to-door driving? Rent a local electric vehicle at the far end. Or take your bicycle.

Invite the French and Japanese to install high speed long distance trains (latest French record 360 MPH). Run them along existing road rights of way. Customers get city-center to city-center service, with no need to queue in airports. Typical airliner cruising speed is faster (around 500 mph) but actual train trip is faster for anything less than maybe 500 miles, and farther than that, take a sleeper.

Everybody's happy then except the oil companies, the auto and truck manufacturers, the road construction companies, and the airlines. Oh, wait: those are the powers that be that did away with the rail system in the first place.

Maybe $130/barrel oil creates new opportunities.



Salt Lake City already has a form of this as well. Citizens can pay $50 a month for a pass to use the carpool lanes on the freeways when they're driving alone.


The assumptions in Dubner's logic is mindboggling how far he has accepted the tenets of plutocracy.

Who built the roads in the first place? Taxpayers. Who built the roads in the first place? Laborers. Who built the roads in the first place? Local, state and the federal government.

Why? Because people needed jobs and the automobile industry got a free ride. If left to corporations, roads would never have been built in the first place.