One objection that appears to be made in the U.S. against rail travel is the reliance on government-paid subsidies.

Considering that the interstate highway system costs an estimated $425 billion, and funding is partly subsidised, partly paid per use (Wikipedia):

About 70 percent of the construction and maintenance costs of Interstate Highways in the United States have been paid through user fees, primarily the fuel taxes collected by the federal, state, and local governments.


The rest of the costs of these highways are borne by general fund receipts, bond issues, designated property taxes, and other taxes. The federal contribution comes overwhelmingly from motor vehicle and fuel taxes (93.5 percent in 2007), and it makes up about 60 percent of the contributions by the states. However, any local government contributions are overwhelmingly from sources besides user fees.

Are there any significant proposals to fund to all infrastructure without government subsidies, as in fully privately funded roads?

Note: although the quote above is on interstate highways, I am also interested in U.S. highways, State highways, County roads, and other roads.

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    The difference here is that the majority of people use the roads. The indirect revenue of having a high capacity road system means that overall the system is profitable. A commuter rail is not and there is no realistic model that would have it become profitable. Feb 6, 2013 at 15:59
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    @Chad Well, of course the majority of people use the roads if there are no railways, that's a rather meaningless statement. It would be a fairer comparison if there were several alternatives, e.g. for London–Paris, Amsterdam–Paris, etc. By "indirect revenue" I suppose you mean the benefit to the economy. It'd be interesting to see sources that there is no such benefit for rail, in particular taking long-term externalised costs into consideration.
    – gerrit
    Feb 6, 2013 at 16:38
  • The benefit to rail comes from freight not passengers. Most if not all major American cities have passenger rail service already and it is basically unused with the exception of the NY/DC corridor. Feb 6, 2013 at 16:45
  • @Chad, are you talking about commuter/(sub)urban rail or intercity rail? Of course taking a 20 minute train into the city in the morning rush hour is different from sitting 48 hours on a slow intercity train. European experiences show that on medium distances, high speed rail competes much better with air than low speed rail, and is significantly cheaper considering externalised costs. Long distance passenger rail will remain a niche, I don't think anyone seriously proposes cross-continental high speed rail in the US.
    – gerrit
    Feb 6, 2013 at 16:52
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    Its a 90 minute drive... and then you have a car to drive around town. Feb 6, 2013 at 16:57

1 Answer 1


Sure, that sounds like a Libertarian proposal. Free-market Roads

Free-market roads is the theory that a society should have entirely privately owned roads.

Free-market roads are generally advocated by anarcho-capitalist works, including Murray Rothbard's For a New Liberty, Morris and Linda Tannehill's The Market for Liberty, David D. Friedman's The Machinery of Freedom, and David T. Beito's The Voluntary City.

In the United States, the majority of roads in the early 19th century were privately funded and operated. In J.P. Morgan and the Transportation Kings: The Titanic and Other Disasters, Steven H. Gittelman notes:

As early as 1800, there were sixty-nine private road-building companies chartered by the states. I've the course of the next three decades, th so called private road-building movement led to the development of new roads at rates previously unheard of in America. Over $11 million was invested in turnpikes in New York, some $6.5 million in New England, and over $4.5 million in Pennsylvania. Between 1794 and 1840, 238 private New England turnpike companies built and operated about 3,750 miles of road. New York led all other states in turnpike mileage with over 4,000 as of 1821. Pennsylvania came second, reaching a peak of about 2,400 miles in 1832. New Jersey companies operated 50 miles by 1821. Between 1810 and 1845 over 400 private turnpikes were chartered and built

Daniel B. Klein, Santa Clara University and John Majewski, University of California – Santa Barbara has similar figures

In view of the difficult regulatory environment and apparent free-rider problem, the success of early turnpikes in raising money and improving roads was striking. The movement built new roads at rates previously unheard of in America. [...] Turnpike companies in these states raised more than $24 million by 1830, an amount equaling 6.15 percent of those states’ 1830 GDP. To put this into comparative perspective, between 1956 and 1995 all levels of government spent $330 billion (in 1996 dollars) in building the interstate highway system, a cumulative total equaling only 4.30 percent of 1996 GDP.

  • Interesting. How prominent are those in the US public debate? Do politicians who reject state subsidies on e.g. railways usually adhere free-market roads, or is it common to argue that one kind of infrastructure should be free-market whereas another one should be state-subsidised?
    – gerrit
    Feb 6, 2013 at 13:11

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