Not-Free-Ways

The word “freeway” has got to be one of the most masterful pieces of misdirection of all time.

The term was supposedly coined to describe the fact that the road was “free” of annoying obstructions like stop signs and cross streets (and, in the midwest, scenery). But the word ‘free’ is normally used in the monetary sense: It’s free; doesn’t cost anything. So when we see the word freeway, some little piece of our brains goes “free! That means it didn’t cost anything!” We override this foolish voice, of course, but we are still left with the gut impression that freeways _must_ be cost effective.

The United States’ method of funding highway construction doesn’t help things any. It’s hard enough to viscerally connect the cost of filling the gasoline tank with our driving habits. Freeway construction costs are so far removed from every-day experiences that it takes a pretty strong effort of will to remember: a large chunk of the cost of that tankful goes to road construction. Now, ideally, that gasoline tax would provide 100% of the cost of building and maintaining all the nation’s streets, highways and freeways. But it doesn’t. Things as varied as vehicle registration fees, property and sales taxes may be applied to road projects. It’s not that politicians are _trying_ to conceal freeway construction costs. It’s just… so easy to get away with, you know?

So, in Wichita, KS, we have the paradox of a billion dollar freeway project proceeding while potholes on surface streets go unrepaired for want of a few millions. We have people arguing that $39-$56 million for a comprehensive bus system is “expensive,” but $250 million to rebuild a single freeway intersection isn’t. In other cities, people who are supposedly conservatives complain bitterly about the fact that mass transit systems don’t collect enough in fares to cover their operational costs, while utterly ignoring the fact that urban freeways collect _no_fares_at_all_.

Something is clearly wrong here. But how to fix it?

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