The Roanoke Times, in an op-ed piece this morning, fell into the all-to-common trap of referring to the money spent on transit as a “subsidy” in the discussion of a recent Roanoke City Council candidate forum. This kind of thinking has got to stop.
For the foreseeable future, I’m going to be exhorting folks to participate in the Livable Roanoke Valley project by becoming member of, and commenting at, the ideas.livableroanoke.org website. This is an extremely important public input process on an extremely important regional plan, and everyone in the Roanoke region should go make their voice heard.
In the Transportation Alternatives section of the site, there’s a comment that indulges in one of the big fallacies that the TDM industry deals with: that investing in transportation options is somehow stopping people from driving their cars:
I don’t see the option that asks if you would rather continue to drive yourself to work regardless of how high the cost of gasoline is. Maybe I just want to ride my car by myself to work. It allows me to be flexible with my schedule. When I’m done with work I just go out, get in my car and go home. I don’t have to wait for a bus. Freedom of choice is a precious thing. Riding my car home with only me in it is pure freedom/liberty. I will pay whatever it takes to allow me that personal freedom. $8.00/gal gas? Sure, not a problem.
My response: Go ahead, be my guest!
It gets frustrating dealing with this fallacy. After generations of supporting, largely, a single mode of transportation (the automobile), people are concerned that moving small amounts of money to fund other modes equates to taking their right to drive away. What about the right to walk safely? To bike safely? To get to work if one is, for whatever reason, unable or uninterested in driving? If there’s a right here at all, it would seem to be a right to transportation, which means a responsibility on the part of government to provide as many options as are reasonable. And, yes, there are times when transit and bike and ped options are unreasonable, but shouldn’t the corollary be true – that we accept that there are times highway and automobile investment is unreasonable?
I understand that people are worried that their preferred mode – driving their automobiles – might receive marginally less public subsidy (because, remember, highways are heavily subsidized) and sustainable modes might get marginally more. No one likes losing. But the fact is that investing in sustainable modes actually gives most drivers what they really want – less congestion, shorter travel times, and better maintained roads. It is, to use the cliche, a win-win.
So, I encourage you to visit ideas.livableroanoke.org. Respond to the comment above. Post your own comments and ideas, and make sure these bad arguments don’t go unchecked.
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.
I’ve written before on the myth that highways are self-sufficient while modes like transit and bicycles are “subsidized.” A recent Governing Magazine article explores this topic by dissecting the idea of the gas tax as a user-fee, a distinction of terminology that is often used to argue that gas-tax money shouldn’t be spent on things like rail, transit, or bike accommodations:
Why do all these labels matter? Aren’t they just semantics? No, because labels influence policies. Road firsters say that high-speed trains, light-rail lines and streetcars need subsidies, which proves their illegitimacy. By insisting that gas taxes be called what they are—taxes—and assessing how roads have really been paid for will help keep these debates honest.
The author, Alex Marshall, makes the same point that I’ve made before: assuming for a moment that you accept the idea that gas tax is a user fee, gas taxes alone haven’t paid for road building and maintenance without significant infusions of general fund dollars for over a half-century, to the tune of $600 billion dollars. Right now, gas taxes only pay for about half of all highway work.
Road firsters also are wrong when they claim revenues from the gas tax pay for most of the costs of roads. The United States has one of the finest road systems in the world, more than 4 million miles, built over the past 125 years and paid for almost entirely by tax dollars, of which the gas tax is almost certainly just one small portion. The gas tax did not even begin on a federal level until 1932. Congress passed the first Federal Aid Road Act in 1916.
Marshall’s purpose in understanding the terminology we use is an important one. The goal with transportation policy should be to increase mobility and connectivity, to shorten transport times, and to connect goods and services to markets. Referring to burning gasoline as a user-fee for transportation distorts the relationship among these things, redefining transportation as merely driving regardless of whether it meets any goal of mobility, efficiency, connectivity, etc.
If we can just get to the point where we agree that all transportation modes are subsidized, and that transportation shouldn’t be burdened by some impossible cost-recovery model, it will go a long way to making sure we are discussing the right modes (and, yes, this will include single occupant vehicle travel) and the right infrastructure (and, yes, this will include highways ) for the right purposes.
Supporters of transit are often challenged to explain why the public should subsidize buses and trains when they don’t subsidize roads, which are paid for by gas taxes. Bicycle advocates occasionally hear the criticism that cyclists don’t belong on the roads because they don’t pay the gas tax (ignoring the fact that most cyclists also own and drive cars) and are using the roads for free.
So, is this true? Do highways pay for themselves through gas taxes, tolls, and user fees while transit and bike accommodations only exist on the shoulders of the taxpayers?
Since 1947, researchers have found that the amount of money spent on highways, roads and streets has exceeded the funds raised from gas taxes and other user fees by $600 billion, “representing a massive transfer of general government funds to highways.” In fact, as of 2007, fees charged to motorists covered only about half the cost of building and maintaining the country’s roads. The rest is financed with other taxes and bonds.
In fact, the Highway Trust Fund – the federal fund that pays for road building and maintenance – has been bankrupt since 2008, kept alive with an infusion of $34 billion in general-fund revenue and debt.
This is not to say that there’s a problem with this. Public infrastructure should be paid for with public funds, regardless of what specific tax they’re tied to. But it does open up the debate to consider which modes are more appropriate for which areas and more deserving for funding. If everything is subsidized – and, clearly, it is – the discussion should be which modes allow for the most mobility and most efficient system in a given area. Transit, bike infrastructure, rail, and so forth still won’t always be the answer, but I bet you they will rise to the top more often than not. And it forces highway advocates to explain, for example, why its better to spend millions widening highways to relieve rush hour traffic congestion when additional buses might do the same job at a better return on the investment.