Kemper Street Station, Lynchburg | C. Patriarca, Wikimedia Commons
Today’s announcement that the Smart Way Connector service is scheduled to start on July 19th is a good opportunity to continue the discussion we’ve been having on transportation funding issues.
As I have written here and here, we labor, as a nation, under the misapprehension that certain kinds of transportation modes are subsidized, and others are not. Transit, in particular, suffers this misunderstanding. To an extent, as the first article mentions, this is a language problem – we call gas taxes a “user fee,” and most people don’t understand to the extent to which that fee falls short of covering infrastructure construction and maintenance costs. To a greater extent, though, I think it comes down to a fundamental misunderstanding of what transportation is.
In short: We have conflated transportation with driving, rather than understanding transportation as mobility. Driving is, of course, one element of mobility – the most popular one at the moment, in many cases a very convenient and efficient one, and certainly the only one to which many people have access. But it’s not the only way to be mobile, certainly not the best way to use resources efficiently, and one to which lots of people also don’t have access.
In regard to the new Smart Way Connector service, the local Roanoke Tea Party has brought up some criticisms of what they refer to as the “Pork Barrel Express,” criticisms worth discussing. They point to the per-rider cost of approximately $74 that was calculated in an early story on the service. They rightly point out that this cost is likely higher since gas prices have climbed since that original estimate. I’d quickly point out, though, that the cost is based on certain ridership assumptions that might now be driven higher by those same gas prices, therefore bringing the per-person down. We won’t know this dynamic until the bus starts running, of course.
The thrust of their argument is found in this paragraphs:
[T]he proposed cost of the bus trip for each rider will be $4. How could it be so cheap?
Well taxpayers are paying $74 per riders (based on the cost before gas went up to $3.30 a gallon). This is so Roanokers can get to Lynchburg and take a subsidized Amtrak train to the Northeast. Amtrak has never turned a profit and is only operating due to an annual influx of $1.5 billion in tax payer funding.
Here is where we get into that problem of the word subsidies. The Smart Way Connector will get $150,000 from the Commonwealth. Amtrak gets $1.5 billion. These are “subsidies,” theoretically, because they aren’t offset by fees or fares.
But neither do roads.
Amtrak received $1.5 billion in tax payer funding? This link points out that, since 1947, highways have received $9.4 billion a year in subsidies above and beyond the funding they already receive from gas taxes and tolls (for a total of $600 billion). This ignores all the initial public investment that went into the highway system between 1916, when the first Federal Road Act was passed, and 1932, when the gas tax was initiated.
Before anyone jumps on those numbers, I’ll grant there are lots of ways to do the math on how this breaks down – per person, per mile, per trip, etc. Of course, almost every one of these is going to come out in favor of the automobile and roads. That’s not the point. The point is that all transportation is subsidized. None of it turns a profit. Once we all get on the same page with this, we can then start to have a conversation about how best to invest those public dollars.
Up until now, maybe highways and an emphasis on personal automobiles makes the most sense and is the most efficient, but maybe that’s because, in part, they’ve been the recipient of massive public investment for decades and decades, investment that helped build the system up and make it efficient as possible. If that’s the case, might it also be the case that new transportation modes, modes developed to meet the transportation and energy needs of the future (such as the rapid arrival of the Baby Boomers, and eventual mobility issues for them, along with issues of energy security and independence), deserve equally robust investment? If gas prices are on a general upward trend, doesn’t it make sense to look at systems that make the best, most efficient use of that limited resource while also offering the maximum choice and mobility?
It’s also worth noting that there are a number of externalities that aren’t captured in the public cost of a roads-only approach to transportation. This study shows that buses are about 10 times more safe than motor vehicles, and trains about 80 times more safe. There are public costs for managing motor vehicle accidents, and the death and injuries from car crashes are also captured in higher insurance premiums and healthcare costs. There are health impacts from the pollution generated from tailpipe emissions that are also captured in medical costs rather than in transportation costs. Oil companies receive about $4 billion in tax breaks, and though these costs are spread across multiple transportation modes (including buses) and petroleum products, it seems safe to say that the biggest beneficiary of this subsidy is the automobile.
This is not intended as an attempt to capture all the costs associated with different modes, but simply to hint at the complexity of what’s involved, and that it’s not a straightforward calculation.
Even more important, though, is that I’m not sure the discussion about cost is the right one to be having anyways. To my first point, the core of transportation is mobility – can you get there from here in a way that’s safe and meets your preferences. That gets to mode choice and the many different audiences for transportation needs. If you are elderly or handicapped, for example, and driving car isn’t an option, is a transportation system that invests solely in personal motor vehicle travel actually meeting the goals of providing transportation. If you’re a company in a major metro area and your employees spend two unproductive hours in traffic each day when they could be riding a wifi enabled bus or train, is your state really making a wise transportation investment when they invest in more roads rather than rail?
In other words, is a per-mile (or per person, or per trip) cost really the best measure? Is $80 per trip automatically a worse investment than $5 per trip if that $80 actually does a better job of improving mobility and encouraging other economic activity (like access to jobs and housing)? That’s the question we should be asking.
Transportation spending is about how we move people, not how we move cars. Different places with different needs will make different choices, and those choices will change over time as the market changes. Right now, it seems like we’re entering a phase where gas prices will steadily increase, both aging Baby Boomers and up-and-coming Millenials seems to have a preference for urban living and a car-free or car-lite lifestyle, and renewed interest in public health and traditional neighborhood design mean a reexamination of walkable communities. These are all trends that support investment in a mix of options for a mix of people, instead of the single-minded support of roads and cars we have followed for the past half-century.
My sense is that people will begin to look more closely at their transportation budgets (the most expensive thing after a mortgage or rent for most households), they’ll look at the time they waste in traffic, they’ll look at their smoggy horizon or think about how safe their streets are, and they’ll start to make different choices. Not a wholsesale change, mind you, but they’ll appreciate having access to a bus, or a greenway, or a bike lane. It might be the only thing that lets them keep the job they have, or live in the neighborhood they grew up in, or afford to put food on the table. As more people use these new modes, the market will shift – just, no doubt, as it shifted towards highways and away from rails and dense development in the early part of the century with those 2 decades of public investment in infrastructure. That, in turn, will shift costs.
There is a vital discussion to be hand about this or any other transportation investment, but before we have it we need to make sure we understand the terms of the debate.