Before Public Roads, Private Companies Did It Better
Even the U.S. Department of Transportation has to admit, the first major U.S. roadways were not built by the government:
The privately built Philadelphia and Lancaster Turnpike Road was the first important turnpike and the first long-distance broken-stone and gravel surface built in America according to formal plans and specifications. The road’s construction marked the beginning of organized road improvement after the long period of economic confusion following the American Revolution.
The road opened the territory northwest of the Ohio River and provided cheap transportation between the coast cities and the new Republic’s “bread basket” region surrounding Lancaster.
In the early days of the United States, the government certainly saw the benefit of roads. But most politicians didn’t think it was their place to raise taxes to pay for them.
State governments laid claim to all unoccupied land. So state governments would grant charters to private companies to build, improve, and maintain roads on “public” land.
The companies sold stock in the routes to investors, which funded the development of these roads. Tolls made the companies profitable so they could pay back investors.
The government’s only role was granting ownership of certain public pathways to these companies, under the condition that they improve them.
The best roads at the time were privately funded, for-profit businesses. Travel for leisure was not as common. People tended to work at home, or close to where they lived. Therefore merchants moving their goods to market paid most of the tolls. This surely brought down the price for other travelers.
Of course, the price of the toll would make it into the price of the goods. In that sense, everyone contributed to the roads. No taxation necessary.