Saturday, February 13, 2010

Mass transit depends on cars

Who's Dependent on Cars? Try Mass Transit
by Ed Braddy

The Smart Growth movement has long demonstrated a keen understanding of the importance of rhetoric. Terms like livability, transportation choice, and even "smart growth" enable advocates to argue by assertion rather than by evidence. Smart Growth rhetoric thrives in a political culture that rewards the clever catchphrase over drab data analysis, but often fails to identify the risks for cities inherent in their war against "auto-dependency" and promotion of large-scale mass transit to boost the "sustainability" of communities.

Yet in pursuing this transit-friendly future, political leaders rarely confront this inescapable reality: public transportation is fiscally unsustainable and utterly dependent on the very car-drivers transit boosters so often excoriate. For example, a major source of funding for transit comes from taxes paid by motorists, which include principally fuel taxes but also sales taxes, registration fees, and transportation grants. The amount of tax diversion varies from place to place, but whether the metro region is small or large the subsidies are significant. In Gainesville, Florida---a college town of 120,000---the regional transit system received 80 percent of the city's local option gas tax in 2008. In New York City, the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority diverts 68 percent of its toll revenues to subways and buses.

In addition to local subsidies, state and federal agencies fund transit operations with revenue from gas taxes and other motorist user fees. In 2007 transit agencies received $10.7 billion from the federal Highway Trust Fund, and that is a conservative figure, since another $11.7 billion was diverted for vaguely phrased "non-highway purposes."

In contrast, fare box recovery doesn’t come close to covering operating expenses. Nor can transit pay for its own capital outlay. Last year the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority moved to dedicate toll revenue and toll bonds to cover half the cost of the $5.26 billion Dulles Metrorail project.

The implications of transit’s auto-dependency are serious. Americans drove 11 billion fewer miles between 2008 and 2009, and for each mile not traveled local, state, and federal taxes were not collected. Without these anticipated revenues, transit systems across the country have suffered and, ironically, those hit hardest are the people who are dependent on public transportation, that is in most cities, the poor and the young...But perhaps the biggest threat to the future of auto-dependent transit is the very "cause" that seeks to establish it as the preferred travel mode. The planning doctrine called Smart Growth with its rationale of sustainable development is growing in popularity in urban areas across the country. Local officials are enamored with visions of auto-light cities where the buses are full, sidewalks are crowded and there are more bicycles on the road than cars.

Beneath the appealing rhetoric of Smart Growth rests the assumption that automobiles are intrinsically bad and that public policy should be directed at restricting their use. Rarely do policymakers weigh the automobile’s many benefits and the improving technologies that are mitigating its negative environmental impact. Even rarer is discussion of whether transit can realistically match the convenience and flexibility of the automobile for both individuals and families...

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15 Comments:

At 1:57 PM, Anonymous Dave said...

Surprised there are no comments. I thought this was fascinating, thanks for bringing it to our attention. It's rarely recognized that transit, as we know it, could not exist without the massive subsidies which come from private automobiles and the taxes they generate. For transit to pay for itself would probably require fare increases of several hundred percent, which would prove unpalatable to say the least.

Let's hope our city leaders don't lose sight of this truth.

 
At 2:19 PM, Anonymous Philip said...

"....the Merry Pranksters of the far right whose tunnel vision regarding transportation financing admits no view of the vastly greater tax subsidies going to travel by private car."
http://www.mn2020.org/index.asp?Type=B_BASIC&SEC=%7BAE74F020-4773-48C1-B940-67023F9EB606%7D

"Using Federal Highway Administration statistics, Subsidyscope has calculated that in 2007, 51 percent of the nation’s $193 billion set aside for highway construction and maintenance was generated through user fees—down from 10 years earlier when user fees made up 61 percent of total spending on roads. The rest came from other sources, including revenue generated by income, sales and property taxes, as well as bond issues.

Going back further, the trend is more pronounced. Forty years ago, user fees amounted to 71 percent of revenues spent on roads. Today, user fee revenue as a share of total highway-related funds is at an all-time low since the Interstate Highway System was created in 1957. A complete data set of highway revenue by source is available for download. In 2007, non-user revenues contributed $70 billion to the highway system. By comparison, this contribution totaled $26 billion in 1967 (in 2007 dollars).

The point here is not that subsidies for transportation are bad. It’s that they’re a key part of the funding of all modes. Rather than pretending that roads are some magical form of infrastructure which pays for itself, we should focus on working to use transportation subsidies more effectively — and to increase the user-fee share of funding where appropriate.

“Passenger rail can’t operate without subsidies” is not a meaningful criticism of rail. What’s more, it’s important to note that since roads and rails are substitute transportation technologies, large and unacknowledged highway subsidies generate a persistent drag on rail ridership (and rail-oriented investment), and a persistent boost to highway use and highway-oriented investment. A highway subsidy is necessarily a sprawl subsidy.",

http://www.ryanavent.com/blog/?p=2261

And of course many other similar articles are available.

 
At 3:00 PM, Blogger Rob Anderson said...

"Rather than pretending that roads are some magical form of infrastructure which pays for itself, we should focus on working to use transportation subsidies more effectively..."

Yes, and the biggest boondoggle-in-the-making is the billions being invested in high-speed rail, which will be used mostly by the well-off at enormous expense to the rest of us. We could use some of that money for Muni here in SF. to prevent service cutbacks.

“Passenger rail can’t operate without subsidies is not a meaningful criticism of rail."

Yes, it can be, especially in the case of high-speed rail. That money would be better spent on buses for city and suburban bus systems. Marin County is getting ready to put a north/south rail system in parallel to Highway 101, even though they already know that it's financially unsustainable and will carry few people.

In spite of all the anti-car rhetoric, the American people prefer cars as a means of transportation, if they can afford it. I don't think that's necessarily a bad thing, since it provides people with a lot of mobility to reach job markets and for recreation.

 
At 3:26 PM, Anonymous Philip said...

"“Passenger rail can’t operate without subsidies is not a meaningful criticism of rail."

Yes, it can be"


I can reasonably expect then that you will be entirely comfortably with the statement: Road auto travel can't operate without subsidies.

 
At 4:48 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Yes, and the biggest boondoggle-in-the-making is the billions being invested in high-speed rail, which will be used mostly by the well-off at enormous expense to the rest of us."

We (the well-off) pay the taxes, we get the boondoggles. If bus riders start contributing more, they can have buses. Until then, buses that do not pay their own way should be cut - that is not only in fares but in the percent contribution to the tax base by the riders. Same goes for cars, drivers pay the taxes, they get they goodies, not people who ride buses.

Cyclists and bus riders do not pay high taxes. Please quit whining to those of us who do.

 
At 9:03 AM, Blogger Rob Anderson said...

It's not a matter of who pays more taxes but whether the tax money is spent wisely. High-speed rail is not "mass" transit, since it will only carry a small number of people. The billions of dollars invested in high-speed rail would be better spent on bus lines in the city and in the suburbs.

 
At 10:49 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"The billions of dollars invested in high-speed rail would be better spent on bus lines in the city and in the suburbs."

The whole point of living in the suburb is so that you don't have to ride the bus.

 
At 11:51 AM, Blogger Rob Anderson said...

No, that's not the "whole point of the suburbs." Many people commute into the city from Marin County, for example, on Golden Gate Transit, and many people rely on that system to get around within Marin, too. Another "point" of the suburbs---single family homes with yards.

 
At 1:29 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Many people commute into the city from Marin County, for example, on Golden Gate Transit, and many people rely on that system to get around within Marin, too. Another "point" of the suburbs---single family homes with yards."

Let me get this one straight. Golden Gate transit is entirely subsidized by bridge tolls that have gone from $3 to $6 and rising over the past several years, and you support that. But you are dead set against using parking meter increases to fund MUNI?

And here's a hint: The people using GGT to get around Marin do not own single family homes with yards - though they are commonly found MOWING those yards and CLEANING those homes for the owner who is DRIVING across the bridge and is getting SOAKED to pay for those buses.

 
At 2:50 PM, Blogger Rob Anderson said...

Look, Fuckhead, we were discussing how to spend transit money, and I said that spending on bus systems is a better transportation investment than high-speed rail, which, like Amtrak, will be used mostly by people with money, and it won't even carry very many of them. Regardless of who rides Golden Gate Transit---or Muni, for that matter---those systems need a subsidy more than some high-tech train trip.

 
At 4:36 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Look yourself Fuckhead - you are the one who posted the blog post that says "public transportation is fiscally unsustainable". I'm not discussing how to spend transit money - I'm discussing not spending ANY money on transit. It's a waste.

High Speed Rail isn't transit - it's just a less-fancy airplane. If you are going from Marin to San Francisco - DRIVE YOUR CAR. If you are going around San Francisco - DRIVE YOUR CAR. If you are going to New York, fly. If you are going to LA, fly until we get the HSR built to save the runways for International and cross-country flights.

 
At 5:09 PM, Blogger Rob Anderson said...

Another remedial reader. I didn't write the blog post in the first place, and I never wrote the statement you put in quotes. You seem to be engaging in an entirely different argument with someone else. Public transportation isn't sustainable without subsidy, which is no surprise and no big deal. Because it's so important, we do subsidize it. High-speed rail will be subsidized just like Muni, but won't carry but a fraction of the people, which is why I think it's a bad way to invest public money. You can all it whatever you want, but it's still a project paid for with public money. Marin County voted several years ago to run a train line on the old tracks next to Highway 101, which is also a bad investment if the point is to take a significant amount of traffic off 101.

 
At 5:32 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

You replicated the original article verbatim, without adding commentary. Why? Because you want to contradict its thesis? His thesis is that we should NOT SUBSIDIZE it as we do!

There is not word one in that article about how to prioritize the money coming from automobiles.

You also provided a link to the article. It contains this gem...

"However, given the current tax diversion imbalance, local officials should at least target a near-term goal for fare box recovery of 85 percent of costs instead of its current one-third average."

Do you disagree with that? That would make a MUNI pass $160, which is probably fair.

 
At 8:48 AM, Blogger Rob Anderson said...

I posted the article because the anti-car folks need to understand how important motor vehicles are for financing public transportation---and bike projects, for that matter---not because I don't believe in public transportation, which is nothing but libertarian, Free Market stupidity. (Libertarianism: the political philosophy of political adolescents everywhere.) No, of course I don't think collecting 85% at the fare box is possible or desirable. Public transportation like other socially desirable projects---public schools, paved streets, electrification, sewage and water systems, etc.---has to be subsidized with tax money.

 
At 5:38 PM, Blogger Douglas A. Willinger said...

To be 'anti car' is to show that one is sufficently gullible to forget that all forms of transport, expect walking, bikes, boats and planes, involves 'cars'- and hence to be anti car is essentually to be anti transportation.

http://cos-mobile.blogspot.com/2011/02/anti-car-is-anti-transportation.html

 

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