The Terrible Private Highway Racket Is Coming For My House

We may earn a commission from links on this page.
Image for article titled The Terrible Private Highway Racket Is Coming For My House
Photo: Mark Wilson (Getty)

You probably missed it because it falls squarely within the genre of normal, pre-2016 government malfeasance, but this week, according to the Washington Post, Maryland state Senator Nancy King (D) shot down a bill that would have made it more difficult for the state’s Republican governor to add toll lanes to the Capital Beltway that loops around Washington, D.C.

“I don’t want to wait three years to have any kind of action,” King said in an interview Tuesday. “I don’t want to tie their hands in any way. I want to see what the plan is. But (state secretary of transportation Pete) [Rahn] said they were willing to work with county people and senators and delegates, so I’m going to hold them to that.”

King said she favors adding two toll lanes — one in each direction — to both highways, but she wants the transportation department to be able to solicit ideas from the private sector.

I have lived in the D.C. area for 15 years now and I can assure you that traffic here is just as shitty as everyone says it is. Greater Washington routinely competes with Atlanta and L.A. in every published study of American traffic hell. Traffic here is unbearable because of overcrowding, and because of a wonky Metro system, and because of abominable drivers, and because of bottlenecks at nearly every Potomac River crossing, and also because of the Beltway, which serves as the chief artery for people commuting to and from points inside the District. When something bad happens on the Beltway, things turns apocalyptic here in a hurry. It’s perfectly logical for local politicians to explore ways to alleviate the problem.


Of course, this being America, Maryland leadership is actively pursuing the least efficient but mostly costly solution: partially privatizing the road. Two months ago, Secretary Rahn ruled out the idea of adding free lanes or HOV carpool lanes to the highway, saying that “managed lanes” would do a better job easing congestion. That’s a painful euphemism for high-occupancy toll lanes (also known as “Lexus Lanes” to NIMBY folk like me), where anyone can pay a toll to beat traffic via an express lane.

These little miracle lanes have already been built over in Virginia, where the government widened local highways, including the Beltway, and installed HOT lanes, which means you can avoid rush hour hell if you happen to be well off. VERY well-off. Tolls rise in accordance with high demand, and private firms sometimes have a hand in setting them. During one rush hour last year, tolls along I-66 in Virginia hit $46.75. One way.


Did this outrageous bullshit ease congestion over in NoVa? Of course not. Expanding highways creates what is known as induced demand, luring more drivers to the road with empty promises of an easy commute. Traffic in Virginia still sucks, the atmosphere there is still smothered in exhaust fumes, and the project itself is hemorrhaging money, even for the Australian firm that helped finance it. There are a million ways to solve a congestion problem: improved public transit, reversible lanes, affordable housing near city centers, designated bus lanes, etc. You don’t need an extensive study to know that expanding a highway but only allowing the wealthy to access the new parts of it doesn’t do much to serve the greater good.

That doesn’t matter to Maryland governor Larry Hogan, who proudly touts himself as a good Republican (and is being talked up as a primary challenger to Trump next year), even though he can be as squirrelly as the rest of them. His plan to widen this road would cost between $9 billion and $11 billion and, according to one presentation, would improve commute times by an estimated three minutes. That’s $9 billion plus in funds and umpteen years of construction. For three minutes. But hey, at least someone gets $9 billion to solve a problem poorly! These firms have sold toll lanes to Brockway, Ogdenville, and North Haverbrook, and by gum they put them on the map!

As with prisons and schools, roads are another public institution that suffers greatly from the encroaching menace of privatization: a poisonous, predatory racket that thrives thanks to a prevailing GOP philosophy of DURRRR THE GUBMINT CAN’T DO NUTHIN’ LET’S SEE IF SMART BUSINESS FOLK CAN DO EVERYTHING FER US INSTEAD. The profit always ends up being more important than the work itself. Private roads have failed in Indiana. They’ve failed in Texas. They’ve failed to alleviate Southern California’s infamous traffic snarls, and they still cost citizens money even if they don’t elect to use the toll lanes. They’re a proven scam. That a Democratic state senator would be like, “Let’s be sure to rush into this and get some shady businesses involved too!” and then says she’ll hold some fucking GOP stooge to his word about all this, is a small but entirely emblematic example of toothlessness among the Democratic party establishment.

This is the part where I disclose that I live next to the Beltway. You can see it from my bedroom window. So yes, this is me framing a highly personal problem as a national crisis. This is me yelling at Larry Hogan to get off my lawn. In fact, he visited the area a few months ago and I went to protest. I walked up to him and said, loudly, “Don’t you take my house.” And Hogan assured me, “We’re not taking anyone’s houses” while a lackey screamed “BYE” into my ear with a bullhorn over and over. He has repeated this claim publicly, although if you live around here, you know that widening the Beltway without seizing adjacent property is fanciful at best and an outright lie at worst (and most probable). Can’t believe a politician might have lied to me.


And I’d be among the more fortunate souls among the displaced. There are hospitals, apartments, retirement homes, daycare providers, and national parks all potentially in the crosshairs of this project. We’d all be collateral damage to a department of transportation hellbent on doing what it wants. I’m at the point where it might be BETTER for the state to buy my house than for them to put the Beltway up my ass and possibly chop the value of my family’s property in half in the process. I am hardly alone in resisting this project. Citizens Against Beltway Expansion has been lobbying for efficient alternatives ever since the threat of expansion became tangible. They still require support and money, especially because more powerful entities in the state seem so pigheadedly determined to ignore their efforts.

In theory, I could reluctantly live with the consequences of living next to one of America’s most notorious roadways, provided I knew that having my place bulldozed really would help improve lives for everyone in the community. But I already know this won’t. I know that I may be forced to sacrifice the home my children have spent their whole lives in mostly so that some fucking private highway firm can suck state coffers dry while roads remain gridlocked. That lucky firm will be granted the privilege all because a supposedly decent Republican wants to be able to say he did something to ease traffic—watch me cut a ribbon!—while a braindead state Senator in the opposition party enables him because she thinks it’ll make her look capable as well. They’re all crooked, and they’re all doing the wrong thing even though they know better. They’re doing it because they know that screwing people over makes more money than actually helping them does.