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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