Tuesday, July 19, 2005

The Inter-County Connector: Libertarian Theory vs. Real Life

It appears now that the Governor has selected his preferred route for the Inter-County Connector between Laurel and Gaithersburg. The route will require the condemnation of a number of houses and related farm lands in the Derwood area and elsewhere.

The ICC goes to the heart of a libertarian dilemma: when can government condemn land and compensate its owner? Different libertarian theorists from Henry George to Richard Posner have philosophized on this issue. Practically, however, even hard-core libertarians must recognize the following:

  1. No successful system of purely private roads exists in any country on Earth.
  2. The economics of road travel makes it economically inefficient to charge tolls on neighborhood-level roads, although a GPS-based system for tracking road travel and billing for it is at least conceivable (if Big Brother-ish).
  3. Roads are relatively inflexible to demand; it is difficult to widen or shrink road lanes quickly.
  4. All road systems impose positive and negative externalities, i.e. unfair winners and losers due to convenience and inconveniences, pollution, traffic jams, etc.

These facts and others mitigate in favor of public road ownership. It stands to reason that if the government does have the power and duty to build and maintain roads, and the power to condemn land ever, it would appear to have the power to condemn land to build roads. It then becomes a question of prudence, of mitigating harm and of cost-benefit analysis, rather than libertarian principles.

As for prudence, it is the lack of an efficient south-bound highway from Montgomery County into the District that has led to the unbelievable county-wide morning back up. While the ICC will not correct that structural inefficiency, it will mitigate some of the horrendous cross-county traffic from Laurel, Burtonsville, and Olney into Rockville, Germantown and Germantown. There is no similarly-sized swath of high-density development without a limited access highway in the State; Prince George's County is far better served by highway access within the county and into the District with the Beltway, MD 295, US 50, Rt 4 and the Suitland Parkway providing efficient access. It will provide better access between Columbia and Baltimore and Montgomery County as well. Disclosure: I drive the commute from Pikesville to Rockville reasonably often and I despise it.

As far as mitigating harm, every route chosen is a stinker and involves condemnation of houses, no less than any other major highway. There are routes which would have condemned more property and others that would have condemned less, but with greater environmental concerns. That said, all of Montgomery County has been on notice of the possibility of this road for over a generation; arguably most living buyers were on notice of the possibility of condemnation or at least their real estate agents knew of it. The signs indicating "ICC-Under Study" have dotted mid-Montgomery County for decades. Almost no one in this high-turnover bedroom community can claim surprise and many have have banked on being near the road as a long-term "positive externality" (windfall) for their property.

As far as cost-benefit, I do question whether the 2.1 billion+-dollar construction estimate represents the best use of transportation funds. I wonder whether condemning land elsewhere for bus rapid transit would be better and have a lower environmental impact.

-- Bruce Godfrey

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