Several weeks ago, some new express lanes were added to the Washington D.C. beltway – not normally a point of interest or concern here in our little burg-in-the-Oregon-woods. Your neighborhood either, I’d guess. But, you might pay more attention if you knew who paid for those improvements and who owns them – private construction companies Flour and Transurban.
“And just why did those two private outfits put up the millions to add to our national transportation system?” you ask. “To make a profit,” sez I. “To own them,” sez I. And that worries me. A lot.
The new D.C. traffic lanes are for carpool use. But, if you’re alone, want to get out of the other four lanes and into the much lighter traffic, go ahead. After you pay the fee. For a few bucks more, you can just whiz to work alone with the carpoolers. And your money goes where? Why, Flour and Transurban, of course. After all, it’s their road now. Or, at least part of it.
One of the tenets of conservatism I’ve long agreed with is government should do the things government does best – private enterprise should do what private enterprise does well. Good balance. Philosophically and often fiscally. But the key is “balance.” And that’s too often hard to achieve.
We look to government for a sound military and conducting our national defense. But, over the last decade or so, we’ve turned over more of the responsibility for our military operations to private business. Housing, food service, construction and a lot of other formerly military-only tasks are now done in many places by civilian contractors.
You might be O.K. with that. But how about the same civilian contracting for security and fighting a war? How about the thousands of mercenaries we hire? Civilians. Is that just the same concept? Firing the bullets instead of cooking food or building a base? Killing on behalf of our government so the military can do something else?
As I said, balance.
In a more mundane way, this privately-owned highway business raises a lot of questions about who should be doing what. Historically, some level of government has always built all our highways. We have city, county, state and federal systems. We build ‘em and we maintain ‘em. We own ‘em.
But, as our various governments are pushed harder against the financial wall, they’re looking for help. Really big construction and engineering companies like Bechtel and Samsung are talking with the big – really big – banks. Merrill Lynch and Goldman Sachs are two – with billions in pension funds and all those insurance dollars just lying around. The idea is they put up large amounts of up-front funding, getting paid back – plus a lot of interest – by owning them and charging us for using them. (more…)