Privatization: Where greed meets grift

A motorist died because of neglect by a private real estate developer and a big technology company. Think about this the next time someone wants to privatize a public asset

Private investors can do a better job than big wasteful government, right?

You may have seen this story in the news this week: A man in North Carolina died in a car crash after he plunged off of a bridge that had washed away in a flood several years ago.

Philip Paxton, 47, was following directions from Google Maps on the night he died.

His family is now suing the people who owned the bridge and Google Maps for being liable in connection with his death.

Your first reaction might have been, “Ha, ha, the Darwin Awards at work, it’s just another person who died because they were following their smartphone.” That was my initial reaction, too.

But the actual story is pretty horrifying and it made me angry, and I thought you’d like to know what I found out.

It turns out that North Carolina allows private developers to maintain public roads in real-estate subdivisions that they build.

That’s not unusual. In Pennsylvania, a private property developer — say, Wayne Homes — builds houses, and they also build the roads that connect to those houses.

But what eventually happens in Pennsylvania is that, in almost every case, the local municipality (city, borough or township) takes over the road once the subdivision is complete.

The local government passes an ordinance agreeing to dedicate the newly constructed private road to public use. The local government then becomes responsible for paving it in the summer and plowing snow in the winter. (And some of them do a better job than others, to be sure.)

There are some roads in Pennsylvania that remain private roads — you’ve probably seen streets labeled “private” — but they’re generally small roads that aren’t allowed to be used by the public.

That’s not what happens in North Carolina, I guess. Roads in North Carolina can be opened to the public — and connected to public roads — even if they’re still technically owned by the property developer. It’s up to the property developer, then, or the property owners who live along that street, to maintain the road forever.

What happens if the real-estate developer goes bankrupt, or goes out of business? Which is apparently what happened in Hickory, N.C. A company called Keener, Shook & Tarleton built a neighborhood in the suburbs. They numbered the streets, just as if they were city-owned streets, but they never turned the streets over to the municipality.

Then, in 1994, they went out of business.

During a flash-flood in 2013, the bridge at 24th Street Place washed out. There’s nothing posted on 24th Street Place that says, for instance, “This is a private road, travel at your own risk.” And the road is listed on local maps — and Google Maps — just like every other road.

Neighbors keep erecting barricades which vandals take away. People have repeatedly asked Google and other map companies to remove the road from their maps. Most of them complied, but Google won’t. (In fact, as of last night, you could still “drive” across the bridge using Google Street View.)

It seems that North Carolina has a lot of roads that are owned and supposed to be maintained by private companies. (Several county officials are quoted in various news accounts as saying they’re legally not allowed to maintain the roads in their county. Some counties, it seems, don’t even have county highway departments, because all of the roads are either maintained by the state of North Carolina, or local city government — or a private developer.)

The local newspaper and TV stations have been doing stories for years warning that eventually, someone was going to accidentally drive into this open cavern and die. (Here’s a story from 2019.) Eventually, someone did try to drive across the missing bridge — Philip Paxton — and he died.

A friend went looking for him after he failed to arrive at his destination, and found him still in his car, upside down in a creek. Can you imagine how horrifying Paxton’s death must have been?

Look at the picture at the top of this article. In the dark, would you have seen that the road was missing?

(Oh, yes: The private developer is also responsible for putting up street lights. But street lights cost money. So, needless to say — no street lights!)

Since the Reagan years, we’ve often been told that “government is the problem” and that “business is more efficient than a public agency.” And while there are a lot of ineffective government agencies, there are also a lot of businesses that are bad, too.

And for all we complain about PennDOT, I’m certain they wouldn’t have simply allowed a bridge to collapse and not even put up a warning sign.

Yet Republicans keep trying to privatize public assets, including roads and bridges, and turn them over to for-profit businesses. We’ve even heard proposals over the years to private Pittsburgh’s park system, and the Republicans frequently argue that public transit agencies — like Pittsburgh Regional Transit — should be sold off. We’ve heard proposals to privatize toll roads (like the Pennsylvania Turnpike) or to allow private investors to take over highway development. (In some U.S. states, that’s already happened.)

While the Hickory, N.C., case may be an extreme one, it’s perfectly logical to see how something like it was eventually going to happen. It’s also easy to see why private businesses should not be allowed to control assets (like roads) used by the general public.

In fact, this is the absolute worst-case scenario of Republican-run government intersecting with a giant profit-driven technology company (Google), neither of which care about the people who live in their communities or use their services. But anyone who has ever dealt with a cell-phone company, a cable TV and Internet company, an airline or a crooked car dealer has horror stories about the experience.

Now, I’m not saying all of those businesses should be taken over by the government. That would be a terrible idea, too.

But I am saying that the example of the Hickory situation — or, say, your local cable TV and Internet company — should be what pops into your mind whenever someone tells you that “private schools do a better job than public schools” or that a private developer ought to be allowed to take over a public works project, or a private company ought to run your local jail or school.

And that doesn’t even begin to address the big tech companies, like Google and Facebook, who have virtual no one available to address complaints from their customers. Almost all of their systems are automated and run by chat-bots; trying to connect to a live human at a large Internet or social-media company is virtually impossible, unless you’re an attorney and you’ve obtained a warrant. They don’t have phone numbers (or if they do, they don’t answer them) and what few humans they do have are overpaid, overworked and overseas, in international call-centers. All in the name of profits.

The saying is “You get what you pay for,” but when private companies run public works and large Internet monopolies, sometimes, you don’t even get that much.

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