It’s common to hear people say that because roads are paid for by their users (fn 1), we should build more roads. After all, the new roads will fund themselves!
At first glance, this seems convincing. But a closer look reveals that the “new roads pay for themselves” argument is based on a logical fallacy. Basically, the fact that the average road pays for itself does not mean that the next road will also pay for itself. In fact, there’s a large amount of recent evidence from the transport market that the next, or “marginal”, road will cost taxpayers more than it brings in revenue.
Economists understand the importance of marginal analysis when making decisions about what to build and how to charge for it. Businesses typically make pricing and production decisions “on the margin”. In other words, they look around for the next potential customer and ask: “Can I produce one additional unit and sell it to that person for a profit?” If the answer is yes, they produce it; if it’s no, they don’t as it would reduce their overall profits.
So what is the market telling us about demand for new roads? As always, it’s best to go and look at the empirical evidence. Over the last decade or two, there have been a number of efforts to get users to pay for new roads. Australia, the US, New Zealand, and a variety of other places have built toll roads – sometimes privately financed, sometimes publicly financed. In most cases, revenues from users were expected to pay the cost of the roads.
These costly investments have almost all failed. Toll roads have suffered from low traffic and low toll revenue. They have often required expensive taxpayer-funded bailouts. It looks as though people are not willing to pay for the marginal road.
In Australia none of the toll roads built after 2000 have been profitable:
Australia has some of the finest highway tunnels in the world, but for the private investors who trusted traffic usage projections from leading and respected consultancy firms the story has been a tale of insolvency and disappointment. Most of the privately owned toll highway projects constructed in the last 15 years in Australia have fallen into receivership or administration within a short time of opening to traffic when it became clear that toll revenue from actual traffic usage would be well short of covering its contribution to the construction costs.
The failures include the A$1bn Sydney Cross City Tunnel, which has seen traffic volumes less than half of forecasts, and the Brisbane Clem 7 and Airport Link tunnels, where traffic volumes have fallen short of forecasts by over 75%.
In the US, an academic paper reviewing toll roads financed by Australia’s Macquarie Bank found that:
The record for these projects is abysmal.
Two of the projects declared bankruptcy. The assets of one, Pocahontas, were written down to zero by its new owner, and two were bought by the government jurisdictions where they were located. Another is in negotiations to be bought by the state of Virginia. None of these projects fulfilled their initial plans to operate successfully as profitable, private companies. Macquarie’s most substantial U.S. project, the Indiana Toll Road project, is near insolvency and attempting to restructure its loans.
In New Zealand, private finance has been slower off the mark, but there have been a couple of experiments with toll roads. In Tauranga, the Route K toll-road has been a financial millstone for the council since its opening in 2003. This year, NZTA agreed to pay off its remaining debt at public expense:
The New Zealand Transport Agency will take $62.5m of the remaining Route K debt from Tauranga City Council, it has today announced.
The council signed off the agreement with NZTA over the ownership of the debt on Route K in a meeting today.
The agency had already agreed to take ownership of the road from July 2015, but at a council meeting this afternoon, councillors discussed the agency also taking on the debt, less $1 million which the council would still owe.
The removal of the debt would see the council’s credit rating upgraded from A+ to AA-.
This is a clear market signal about the financial viability of new roads. It should not be surprising. After a half-century of road-building, Australia, the US, and New Zealand have extensive and mature road networks. There are seldom opportunities to dramatically improve the network by building another road. (Which is not to say that there are no opportunities to do so – it’s just that they’re bloody hard to find!)
In this context, it makes more sense to invest the marginal transport dollar in providing better transport choices. After half a century of underinvestment in public transport and walking and cycling facilities, there’s a lot of latent demand. As a result, every time Auckland has built a new piece of public transport infrastructure this century, demand has outstripped projections. Here, for example, is a graph from a few years ago that shows that Britomart met its 2021 patronage targets more than a decade early.
In other words, people aren’t willing to pay for new roads, but they are queuing up to get on the bus or train. Transport policy should recognise these market signals and invest in choice.
Footnote 1: This is factually incorrect. Since 2004, the National Land Transport Fund, which consists of fuel taxes, road user charges, and vehicle license fees, has paid 100% of the cost state highways. However, it only pays 50% of the cost of local roads, which account for the majority of vehicle kilometres travelled. The remaining 50% are paid for by local council rates.