I was digging through an unlabeled file box the other day, not knowing what I might find, when I uncovered an article I wrote more than thirteen years ago for the now-defunct Arlington Journal. Written in response to a previous article, my piece was identified as "Second Opinion" and headlined: "End the government monopoly on mass transit service."
Since transportation issues are as salient today as they were in 1995, I thought it might be worthwhile to post the text of the article here and solicit comments from readers. Do you think any of these ideas are worth pursuing today? Free-market solutions, I believe, deserve to be given a chance when government-centered programs fail to deliver all they promise.
Here is what I wrote back then, which (IMHO) remains fresh today:
End the government monopoly on mass transit service
Richard E. Sincere, Jr.
(The Arlington Journal, Friday, April 21, 1995)
Some local government officials are moving in the right direction as they discuss the future of Metrobus service (“N.Va. systems threaten Transit giant,” April 11[, 1995]), but most seem too wary to step toward creativity and market-based decision making.
These local government officials deserve credit for their willingness to consider privatization of Metrobus routes as a means to make the system more cost-effective. Unfortunately, it seems that to them “privatization” is still limited to a county- or city-owned bus system to replace Metro or -- at best -- a government-granted monopoly to a private company within single jurisdictions.
Why not consider more and varied alternatives that, when used together, will have the ultimate effect of reducing costs, improving efficiency, increasing mass-transit use age, and alleviating pollution:
Here are some examples:
* Legalize Jitney service. Jitneys are vehicles smaller than buses, such as vans, that operate independently (like taxis) but on a predetermined route (like buses). The operators set their own fares, which they can base on distance traveled or on other face ton. Different jitneys can compete for the same passengers along the same routes, or a fleet of jitneys can divide up territory. Jitneys could operate within and across jurisdictions, feeding into Metrorail or connecting Tysons Corner to Silver Spring.
* Restore the Potomac’s status as a highway. The cities of Washington and Alexandria lie where they are because the Potomac River was once a major transporter of goods and people. A water-taxi service between Old Town Alexandria and Georgetown, with stops at the Washington Marina and in Arlington, could make the Potomac again a significant people mover.
* Turn Interstates 66 and 395 into toll roads, with tolls based on the number of passengers. For instance, instead of the dreaded high-occupancy vehicle lanes, we could charge vehicles a toll based on a sliding scale, such as $2 for lone drivers, $1.50 for two-passenger cars, $1 for three passengers, 75 cents for four passengers, and no charge for more than four. Such a scheme would persuade some people to take Metrorail, some to take the bus, some to car pool, and some to bear the economic price of the toll, depending on their preferences.
* End the government mass transit monopoly. These three examples only touch the surface of creative, market-based solutions that are there for us to consider and to use. The best way to encourage more use of mass transit, however, is to make more types of mass transit available, and to give commuters and travelers more choices than they have today. Allowing private services to compete with Metro on the same routes will be a good first step.
After all, we would never think it proper to grant Giant a monopoly in Fairfax County and Safeway a monopoly in Arlington County, and not let them compete against each other or against 7-Eleven. If consumers can pick a grocery store, why not let them pick a type of mass transit? And why not let entrepreneurs give them what they want?
• Richard E. Sincere Jr. of Arlington chairs the Libertarian Party of Virginia.