Growth and the Free Market

The biggest problem facing Lincoln County, according to not only those in our local government but also many residents as well, is growth and development. Listen to them for any length of time and you’ll hear claims similar to the following:

“Traffic is bad enough as it is; our roads just can’t take the additional traffic more development brings.”

“The water and sewer system is at capacity. More development will put an unnecessary strain on the entire system.”

What you won’t hear is things like:

“How will the grocery stores be able to have enough groceries for everyone?”

“There will be a terrible strain at gas stations, resulting in long lines.”

Why would that be? Maybe because the roads and the water/sewer system is managed by government, whereas grocery stores and gas stations are a product of the (mostly) free market?

The current Highway 16 bypass has been needed for literally decades. When my parents first built their house on the highway in the early 1960s, traffic was already congested. Even after the four-lane bypass and the addition of the turning lane, traffic will still be bad even with no new development. Why weren’t these improvements made decades ago when they could have done some good?

The sewer and water system has been so badly mismanaged that any new development will indeed overtax the system. The county is planning to borrow $15 million to construct a new wastewater treatment plant, which all Lincoln County taxpayers will have to foot the bill for regardless of whether or not it’s even possible for them to hook up to the water supply. Why was this not done a lot earlier, and with funds directly taken from the water and sewer budget?

Is there anything special about roads and water/sewer services that the free market can’t handle? I don’t think so. It’s taken several years for the state to build a 5.7-mile bypass for NC 16 through Gaston and Lincoln counties. Compare that to the Ohio Turnpike, built by an independent commission, which from groundbreaking to completion built the whole 241-mile highway in just 38 months—and is still paid for completely with tolls (and a 5¢-per-gallon gas tax only on its gas stations, used for maintaining overpasses on state roads). No Federal money required.

Likewise, there are many privately-managed water and sewer systems—in fact, 40% of municipal water supplies are privately managed, according to the EPA. And they tend to have better quality water, more plentiful water even in drought conditions, and lower costs than most government-run water supplies.

Heck, they could just let people choose to have a well and septic tank if they want. How hypocritical is it to take this choice away from property owners and then cry that the system is taxed at capacity? Do this, and turn the water and sewer system over to a private company (or, better still, companies) who will actually face the consequences when the system doesn’t work as it should.

Fixing the road problem will be trickier, but there are options. Everyone involved needs to face consequences whenever projects are delayed, just as private companies do in the real world. Multiple contractors should hired to compete against each other to get the work completed more quickly.

As it is, we’re the ones facing the consequences—in slower traffic, the lack of local services, lost jobs, and wasted tax money. And it’s time we started demanding something be done about it, by placing the responsibility where it belongs: on those in government who have mismanaged these services, and not the companies and families who want to come here to live and do business.

This article was published in the Lincoln Times-News on 4/20/2007.

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