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The Privatized City Where Everything Is Tolled

In Chapter 1 of our Trump City series, we look at Trump's privatization plan, and a city that charges you for everything.

The Privatized City Where Everything Is Tolled

[Photo: Roman Logov via Unsplash]

This article is part of our seven-part series on the future of cities under President-elect Trump, for which we asked experts in urban planning, city surveillance, and social reform to describe the city they imagine under the policies of the new administration.

We don’t know how President-elect Donald Trump will bring back lost manufacturing jobs, how he plans to register Muslims living in America, or how he'll pay for that wall.

But Trump’s nascent administration has been comparatively clear on one thing: his infrastructure plan. In the best-articulated idea of his entire candidacy, Trump suggested that private industry will rebuild our infrastructure. These businesses will receive large tax breaks and revenue rights to rebuild our roads and bridges, to operate our public transportation, to fix water lines, and to improve city buildings.

What does a city run by private corporations look like? It’s a city where nearly every aspect of life is tolled.

"In an environment where public funding of infrastructure is dwindling, a probable outcome will be a rise in user fees like demand-based pricing for roads or utility fees," says Stephen Engblom, senior vice president at private infrastructure conglomerate AECOM. "This will be necessary as privately funded infrastructure will require these payments to pay for the investment."

Urbanist journalist Greg Lindsay imagines a darker scenario in which all public transit is handed over to private corporations. Imagine Uber running trains with surge pricing on your way to work each morning. Individual neighborhoods might be tolled on entry, effectively cutting off parts of the city to people without the means to pay. Consider having to pay $2.50 every time you go shopping in Tribeca or commute to your job in SoHo—perhaps through an RFID-powered deduction system that tolls users seamlessly across the city.

Such changes would put painful financial pressure even for middle-class city residents, and create deeper schisms within cities that are already socially and economically segregated. (In a very real panic of evaporating federal funding, the Chicago Transit Authority is currently trying to rush through a $2.1 billion grant before Inauguration Day.) "It’s hard for me to come up with deals that are win-win-win," says Lindsay. "I personally can’t find an example where the will of the people has been done by [private investors]."

There’s also a more practical problem with privatization—which tends to work better for big, monetizable projects, and worse for smaller, necessary ones. Just look at a recent example from Chicago. In 2008, the city had an eager buyer to privatize its parking meters, which involved one lump-sum payment in exchange for 75 years of private rights. The deal immediately led to price hikes that required so many quarters that meters soon overflowed, unusable, and citizens were ticketed as a result. But when Mayor Emanuel floated the idea of a public-private infrastructure trust, in which investors would replace critical infrastructure components, it foundered.

"It failed because no one wanted to replace the boilers in schools; they wanted to buy Midway Airport," says Lindsay of the pitfalls of privatization. "The size of the deals are out of whack . . . and it creates the incentive to give away the game to get all the money you can."

Yet giving away the biggest, most profitable chunks of our infrastructure isn't always even legal or feasible. For instance, our interstate highways are among the best candidates for privatization, given that tolling vehicles is such a predictable revenue driver (even though most roads are maintained by gas taxes today). Yet, these roads could be impossible to privatize at the federal level because states actually have jurisdiction over their own segments. The federal government only controls the tiny road segments connecting states themselves. Every road within a state or its cities is out of reach of the federal government.

"The most extreme thing Congress could do legally is mandate that interstate segments be converted to toll roads when they are reconstructed," says Marc Scribner, research fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute. "However, they couldn’t force the states to engage in long-term concessions with private investors." In other words, the federal government can't make states accommodate private businesses that want to toll state roads for years or decades. And without such a guaranteed revenue stream, no private investor would fund a major highway.

While the potential problems with this vision of cities in the age of Trump are numerous, not everyone is convinced that privatization would be all that different than the public options we have today. Why? Because many of us rely on privatized services in our daily lives already.

"My energy utility is private here. They’re a regulated monopoly. They build infrastructure, buy energy, and deliver it to customers. We pay for it in the form of a monthly energy bill. And that is functionally identical to my water utility, which happens to be public here which does the exact same thing," says Gabriel Metcalf, president of the urban policy think tank Spur. "The fact of it being public or private is pretty trivial."

Maybe the urban citizen of the future will have no idea who is charging them for what. Instead, we simply face a monthly bill full of bridge crossings and playground visits that resembles our utility bills of today. Want to visit that park? It's not worth the overages. Everything is metered, and we can't even step onto the sidewalk without worrying we're paying someone for the privilege.

Read Chapter 2: The Sanctuary City That Fights The Federal Government

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