Booo, traffic is back

One upside during the pandemic was the light traffic on the roads. For two years it was completely unnecessary to think through whether rush hour would delay one’s arrival. There was no need to buffer in extra time, no need to avoid travel at certain hours of the day. It was a public service windfall.

We have no toll roads in Minnesota, so roads are a classic, open to everyone, public amenity. (Well- there are a very small number of gated communities, where austere gates carry signs stating ‘Private Drive’ even though said gates are wide open to entry.) When lots of people are using the roads, it costs me money in extra use of my time. More or less the opposite dynamics to a private good.

Roads can also externalize negative private benefits when they are in ill repair. Hitting a large pothole even at moderate speeds can throw your alignment out of place. And this is why people get on the phone with their city council person and demand to see sand and tar trucks out filling holes in the neighborhood. Not everyone gets their cars damaged, and not everyone needs to call the city council person. But if the average guy/gal provide the feedback, and expectation are pursued, then the whole benefits.

Before dismissing local politics as boring, think for a moment at how many levels these tasks of feedback and correction occur. Property owners take care of their driveways, sometimes under duress from neighbors. Associations, cities, counties, and townships all have ownership and maintenance responsibilities. Then there are state highways and the Federal Interstate system. Motorists may not give a second thought to the land under the pavement they are passing over. But there is competition for resources between each system.

I recently overheard a conversation where it was pointed out that the county snow removal vehicles were parked in our city. This is a windfall. Their trucks must plow a few hundred yards of city streets before getting to the county roads. Although both the city and the county provide a public service, each acts as a private competitor when interacting with one another.

So even though roads are public goods, they can cost me privately in time during congested periods and repairs due to poor maintenance. They also function like a private good (in the sense of competition for resources) between the levels of government responsible for the system’s interconnected parts. And there are lots and lots of levels of economic interaction to keep it all in good repair.