THE worldwide drive to privatize public works - only now catching on in the United States - has precursors in American history.
Between 1790 and 1830 turnpike corporations were formed throughout New England to build thousands of miles of toll roads. The cost of construction varied from $300 to $10,000 a mile at the time.
In this first toll-road boom, turnpike companies pooled investors' assets, and distributed (usually meager) returns. These companies helped establish a lasting and successful ownership formula in America: stock-based corporations.
A second surge of toll-road expansion occurred just after World War II, when toll roads became popular with the public because they helped to make travel easier and faster on heavily used corridors of the country, especially in the Northeast.
The Pennsylvania Turnpike from Harrisburg to Pittsburgh, which was later extended east to Philadelphia and west to the Ohio border, proved to be a successful format for future toll roads. The turnpike eliminated cross traffic, completely controlled access, and for the first time provided restaurant and fueling facilities for motorists. The format spurred toll-road building and spurred the development of the Interstate Highway System.
Over time, tolls can mean the difference between maintaining bridges or letting them slowly disintegrate. A long-term lack of maintenance is an argument against tolls ever having been removed from New York's East River bridges, says Samuel Schwartz of New York's Infrastructure Institute. The Williamsburg, Brooklyn, Manhattan, and Queensboro bridges - now free - all had tolls earlier this century. In 1911, the four bridges brought in about $50,000 in revenue. When adjusted for inflation and traffic change s, today's revenue would be about $15 million, enough to adequately maintain them, Mr. Schwartz says.