Financing Transportation in an Age of Political Cowardice

» The loss of the Democratic Senate supermajority will make any attempt at developing a new transportation funding source all the more difficult.

Republican Scott Brown’s win over Democrat Martha Coakley in yesterday’s Massachusetts special election for the Senate seat formerly held by Ted Kennedy could not have come at a worse time for Democrats already perplexed by their inability to come together to pass a health care bill — despite their large majorities in both houses of Congress. The loss of the 60th seat in the Senate keeps the party in decisive control of the legislature, but what has become clear over the past year is that mainstream Democrats lost their confidence in using government as a positive tool for social improvement years ago. The result is a party afraid to govern.

If the recession spurred a strong Democratic response early in 2009 with the passage of the stimulus bill, both the insufficient size of that measure and the continued reluctance to follow up with another law designed to encourage job creation have demonstrated that neither the Obama Administration nor the Congress are fighting to bring about a modern-age New Deal. The refusal among moderates in the party to move forward seriously on developing new funding sources for important policy measures — added to the steadfast refusal from Republicans to compromise on almost any issue — shows that there is little progressive resolve here.

There are clear disagreements on the causes of Ms. Coakley’s loss yesterday, but it is clear to me that one significant reason for voter disapproval of the Democratic candidate was the fact that the party simply hasn’t been able to get much done since it took power.

If the Democratic Party cannot govern effectively, it will not maintain its control over Washington, and the consequence will be the corresponding rise of Republicans. If the Senate continues to rely on a 60-seat majority to pass anything, the GOP has already taken back at least some sway: note the immediate willingness among moderate Democrats to cave to Republican demands on health care following Mr. Brown’s win, in spite of Mr. Obama’s still-positive approval ratings. At least as implied by recent candidates in state and federal races, that means a drastic step backwards in terms of funding for sustainable transportation alternatives and infrastructure in general.

Republican John McCain, of course, ran for president as a noted rail opponent — he has repeatedly fought against aid for Amtrak and he has ridiculed high-speed rail investment as “pork.” Though opposition to fast trains seems to have calmed a bit in his party’s circles, in the three most recent high-profile races, the Republican candidate has put himself in stark contrast to the Democrat in terms of transportation, and the comparison doesn’t look good. Massachusetts’ Mr. Brown ran as an opponent of Governor Deval Patrick’s (D) proposed gas tax increase. In Virginia, Democrats lost their grip on the Governor’s seat when Creigh Deeds, who had a thought-out platform for transportation, lost to Bob McDonnell (R), who said virtually nothing on the matter other than that he was against more taxes, no matter their benefits. Willing to support an augmentation of the fuel tax, former Governor of New Jersey Jon Corzine (D), lost his fall 2009 reelection bid to Chris Christie (R), who from the beginning ruled out the policy, in favor of undefined cuts elsewhere to pay for transportation improvements.

In states with major economic difficulties, the GOP has shown itself willing to sacrifice the needs of transit users for the benefit of drivers. California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger has recently proposed emptying state reserves designated for transit and using them for road expansions instead. Senate Republicans have universally voted worse on important infrastructure-creating legislation than their Democratic peers, according to my analysis.

Democrats, of course, are not great either — Governor David Paterson of New York announced yesterday a planned further $104 million in cuts to the already aggrieved Metropolitan Transportation Authority. This is the fundamental problem: neither party — even the supposed “tax and spend” one — is willing to take the steps necessary to raise revenues to sponsor increased funding for transit, even though the country is in desperate need of more investment.

The transportation bill, which is supposed to define federal spending on surface transportation over a six-year period, was supposed to be passed into law last year, but Democrats have been unwilling to compromise on any of the major alternatives for funding its expected cost of $450 billion, including an increase in the fuel tax, a potential tax on vehicle miles traveled, congestion pricing, or even an oil-trading surcharge. There has been no consensus in Congress on moving forward on transportation funding at least since last June — and with Mr. Brown’s win, there is no reason to expect that situation to change in the short term.

Congress will get around to funding a new transportation bill at some point, but in the meantime it will continue to fill the Highway Trust Fund (which sponsors road and transit projects) with general revenues to make up for the ever-increasing deficit in gas tax revenues. There is at least a political imperative to keep transportation spending at the status quo — even though doing so requires digging deeper in the expanding debt of the U.S. treasury. The stimulus relied entirely on those general revenues, as would any potential job stimulus that Democrats now seem interested in promoting.

While still in power, Democrats must push for the creation of a sustainable, reserved funding source for transportation with a major portion of revenues dedicated for transit, biking, and pedestrian-oriented communities. Their fear of raising taxes may make that impossible, but GOP leadership won’t likely result in any improvement, since it would probably mean cutting spending on infrastructure, or at least not maintaining it at inflation-adjusted levels.

Nonetheless, the current situation, in which income tax-sourced dollars are being used to create new infrastructure, has its merits. As I detailed in an article for Dissent Magazine this month [ Cars, Highways, and the Poor* ], there are significant advantages to using the general fund for spending, rather than relying solely on transportation-related financing. The general fund is redistributive, unlike the gas tax, the vehicle miles traveled charge, or congestion fees. Its use seems particularly relevant considering the increasing presence of poverty in car-dependent suburbs; public transportation is simply not an option for a huge percentage of the lower-class population in the immediate term, so the truth of the matter is that the law must take their commuting needs into account, even if they’re moving about by car.

This is not to defend pro-automobile policy-making, but to suggest rather that there may be good reasons for Congress to delay action on choosing a funding source for the next transportation bill. While there is nothing great about the government’s inability to take a step forward to paying for essential infrastructure, the government can do a better job in orienting transportation planning towards more sustainable choices even as it fights to ensure equitable taxation policy.

Democrats, even with their diminished majority, have a chance to do just that this year. Will they find the courage to do so?

* The Dissent article, as per agreement, cannot be copied on to other sites; please do not copy it or link directly to it from elsewhere. Of course, please link to the piece on The Transport Politic if you’d like.

47 Comments | Leave a Reply »
  • NikolasM

    Christ, I guess $4 gas didn’t teach us anything. Maybe when it hits $6? We are amazingly good at sticking our heads in the sand.

  • dist

    Maybe it’s the way it ought to be. Reforms, evolutions in the all-car society will be “driven by the Market”. At least, that the strongest of the incencitive. When cars and driving will become so expensive maybe people will start to flock back (and want to flock back) into denser urban cores which will then make infrastructure projects (as well as public amenities) more efficient… Maybe. I certainly hope so.

  • EngineerScotty

    If there’s a silver lining to yesterday’s defeat–it’s that it’s the establishment Dems who, in many cases, are the ones being beaten, rather than the progressives. Coakley was the establishment choice, and a mediocre politician to boot. Corzine was corrupt and incompetent.

    There’s been a little war brewing among the Democrats for fifteen years now; ever since the Clinton Administration’s position on things like NAFTA. The complaint many progressives have about the establishment wing is not that they’re insufficiently leftist (though that’s part of it)–but that they–as you note–are afraid to govern. FAR too many Democrats will get spooked by the polls, and run screaming from the room when progressive legislation faces any sort of opposition from the right.

    And Obama–who won the nomination largely due to the efforts of the progressives (Hillary was the establishment choice), but is a centrist rather than a leftist, is caught in the middle. Some of this is his fault–he should understand as well as any the depth of progressive anger. Some is the fault of the progressives, who either weren’t paying attention, or simply wanted Anyone But Hillary–it isn’t as though Obama pretended to be a leftist during the campaign; he’s governing much the way he said he would. And the cowardice of many establishment Dems is nauseating–if you’re not going to enact the agenda your were voted in to enact, then what was the point of fucking running?

    But those who want a progressive agenda to be enacted have far more work to do.

  • NikolasM

    The problem in waiting for $6 gas is that it will be extremely expensive at that point to start constructing alternatives to the last 50-60 years of status quo. We got a gift that prices dropped down to $2 again but as usual did nothing.

  • Ben

    @EngineerScotty-

    First, Obama should sack Tim Geithner and replace him with Phil Angelides. Second, Obama should make financial reform a priority (as Paul Krugman noted this week) and expose the phony GOP populism for what it is.

  • Adam

    The senate is dead as an institution. It is broken and with it, so is the country. We are just too polarized as a nation to be able to find optimal solutions to problems that require a 60-vote supermajority. Until that is fixed, our country will continue to suffer greatly.

  • A gas tax isn’t actually a tax – it’s a correction to the pollution problems imposed by driving. The question you should ask is not “Why should drivers pay an extra $3 per gallon?” but “why should drivers be subsidized $3 per gallon?”

    In general, the people who breathe tailpipe emissions-laden air and get asthma are poorer than the people who drive.

  • Ben

    Speaking of transportation finance options, this may be of interest:

    “The University of Iowa’s Public Policy Center is sponsoring a competition for students to produce videos related to transportation finance. It’s a great opportunity for students, as the winning teams each get to send one representation to TRB’s upcoming transportation finance conference in May (in New Orleans). The winning videos will be shown in plenary sessions at the conference.
    All the info on the video competition is available at this website: http://ppc.uiowa.edu/pages.php?id=179 . “

  • Here comes the year of the filibuster. It’s funny because I thought the senate didn’t get anything done last year. I really think that the House has tried to accomplish stuff but gotten nowhere because of the Senate. The problems with the senate seem to mirror the problems with California. Any time you need a supermajority you just aren’t going to get anything done. I’m thoroughly disappointed though myself. I really think we won’t do anything about climate change or transportation policy until it is too late and the consequences are too great.

  • Deacon

    They’ll have pissing matches across the isle forever.

    The GOP has no ideas and doesn’t like the ideas The Dems are coming to the table with. Yet they have done nothing in the past year to actively be part of the solution to our problems, instead they denounce everything the Dems do and say and leave it at that, not coming back with an alternative of any sort.

    The senate is one voted for by the people to work for the people and it doesn’t. I’d wager that every elected official in the country can take a 1 year hiatus and we’ll not feel their absence. Their incompetence is astounding.

  • Jay

    This makes me worried, too. What will it take to get something like these incrementally higher-speed rail routes built and operating in this country ? I think they would serve as a strong stimulus to the economy, but many Republicans are dead set against them. All this political stalemate might mean that nothing, I fear, will get done or built, and we will be talking about these projects for another two decades. If the Republicans are not offering any solutions, then they are part of the problem.

  • Matty P

    The time for a third party is NOW! Call it the Independent Intelligence Party. Our primary goals: Transportation, Infrastructure, National and Regional Planning, and Jobs. This country needs to drop the partisan bickering, social agendas (both conservative and liberal), and name calling.

    As you all know our country is literally crumbling around us, and no one wants to do anything about it. How many bridges need to collapse, rivers need to be deemed toxic, pipes exploded, power outages, roads crumble. Republicans should see how this connects to National Security and Strong Commerce. The Democrats should see this as creating jobs and allowing all people access to mass transit.

    If the two established parties can’t get their act together, the growing Independent majority needs to band together, roll up our sleeves and get this country on track. As a young person, my future depends on it!

  • Norman Brown

    Our Democracy is limited by the political math of the Senate rules. It takes 40 votes (twenty states) to block anything. The twenty smallest states have about 31 Million residents out of a population of about 307 Million, that is 10%. The twenty largest states have about 211 Million people about 67%. So 10% of the population can stop anything but it might take 67% to stop something. If your local Kiwanis club had rules like this you would never be able to organize a bake sale.

    This is an enormous structural problem no one is close to addressing. Maybe that is why our only industrial policy is low gas prices. We continue to lose ground to nations that trust themselves enough to tax. The European governments vary in structure but none have anything remotely like a Senatorial filibuster to drag them down. Some have a couple dominant parties but all have multi-party systems built on strong, democratic parliaments.

  • Gordy

    “A gas tax isn’t actually a tax – it’s a correction to the pollution problems imposed by driving. The question you should ask is not “Why should drivers pay an extra $3 per gallon?” but “why should drivers be subsidized $3 per gallon?””

    They shouldn’t be and they’re not.

    Why should transit users be subsidized 72 cents on the dollar?

  • They shouldn’t be and they’re not.

    You’re right, they’re subsidized $5-15 a gallon. $3 per gallon is a figure used by Mankiw accounting only for the costs of pollution and CO2 emissions, excluding other issues such as military protection of oil sources and the social costs of sprawl.

    Even excluding externalities, the national highway system is subsidized 33 cents on the dollar, and state roads are subsidized more (in Texas, it ranges from 50 to 84 cents on the dollar).

    For reference, the largest transit system in the US, New York City Transit, is subsidized about 60 cents on the dollar for both buses and subway, including capital depreciation.

    So to answer your question: transit needs to be subsidized because the competition is subsidized, too.

  • Spokker

    The democrats had a supermajority and they still couldn’t do anything with it. I doubt they could get transportation reform passed even if there were a 100 Democrats in the Senate. Democrats are gutless.

  • Spokker

    Democrats are gutless and worthless. Republicans are worse because some of their stupid ideas actually get through.

  • Gordy

    You’re right, they’re subsidized $5-15 a gallon.

    No, gasoline is subsidized about 20 cents a gallon.

  • Yonah, another great article, as usual. I’m sure your readers understood what you meant, but I just wanted to alert you to the error in the price tag of the surface transportation bill: it’s 450 billion, not million. Anyhow, thanks again for another compelling analysis of the challenges ahead.

  • Kenney

    And to Gordy, the paper you link to explicitly says in the abstract at the beginning that it’s 20 to 70, not just 20. A 50 cent range is a lot to gloss over. In addition, it says that the 20 to 70 figure does not include the external costs of automobile use. Looking at the report Alon linked to, there’s somewhat of an apples and oranges problem if you try to compare it to the report you linked to, not the least of which is the fact that Alon’s report is 9 years older than yours, and the two papers’ goals are slightly different. In any case, the overall truth of the matter is that gasoline, and the lifestyles/development it encourages, is way over subsidized.

  • TC

    What happens in Massachusetts usually signals a sign of things to come for the rest of the country. The Democrats need to repackage their message of spending and policies if they want the centrists back supporting them.

  • Russell Warshay

    The Democrats would be in much better shape if their $3/4 trillion stimulus bill was really all stimulus, and if it was front loaded. It should have all been spent in 2009. This would have produced noticeable results which would have translated into greater credibility with the American Public. The electorate would have been more receptive to a second stimulus bill, if needed, as well as to large infrastructure initiatives. Instead what is seen is pork, an ineffective initiative, and a greater national debt. They blew it.

  • Gordy

    Kenney,

    The 20 cent number is for direct subsidies. Eliminating these subsidies would increase the cost of driving by an average of something like 2%.

    Direct subsidies for mass transit are around 70 cents on the dollar. Eliminating these subsidies would increase the cost of using mass transit by an average of more than 300%.

    As for indirect subsidies from unpriced negative externalities, these apply to both motor vehicles and mass transit. Most transit is buses, and most buses run on diesel. The electricity used to power electric rail transit is mostly generated by fossil fuels, especially coal, which is the dirtiest of fossil fuels. So mass transit users receives indirect subsidies from the negative externalities of fossil fuels just like motor vehicle users do. These indirect subsidies to mass transit users are additional subsidies, over and above the 70 cents per dollar they get in direct subsidies.

  • Nathanael

    “If the Democratic Party cannot govern effectively, it will not maintain its control over Washington, and the consequence will be the corresponding rise of Republicans”

    Nope. The stats show that the popularity of Republicans is not increasing significantly, and that they have no chance of actually taking control of either house of Congress. People hate both of ’em. This hasn’t been the case to this degree for quite a while and it’s not a politically stable situation.

    The problem, in a nutshell, is the US Senate. It’s undemocratic — why do Wyoming voters have hundreds of times as much power as California voters? — and it has crazy extra-double-undemocratic supermajority rules, which should be abolished yesterday. It’s been where good ideas get turned into bad ones. It’s small enough to be an easy target for lobbyists — whereas lobbyists targeting the House of Representatives get *caught* when House members start quoting the same press release! — and the six year terms help ensure no accountability.

    Finally people are beginning to understand how the Senate is wrecking our political system and are supporting the abolition of the filibuster (which has not been successfully and lastingly used for a progressive or other good cause in the last 100 years, BTW).

  • Nathanael

    “As for indirect subsidies from unpriced negative externalities, these apply to both motor vehicles and mass transit.”

    Yeah, but the indirect subsidies are much larger for single-occupancy vehicles than for heavily-used mass transit, thanks to higher carbon emissions per passenger.

    Also, some careful studies showed that the *much* greater efficiencies of electric mean that even if your electric car is powered entirely by coal, it produces less carbon emissions over its lifecycle than a gasoline car.

    Similar numbers apply to electric trains versus diesel buses, but only if you have enough passengers to fill up the trains.

  • Nathanael

    “The time for a third party is NOW! ”

    Look up _Duverger’s Law_ in Wikipedia to understand why this is an idea fraught with difficulty. At least one of the existing parties must be killed stone cold dead to give a third party viability. I suggest killing the Republican Party.

    In the meantime, the problem is the Senate, so I suggest a single-issue group devoted to the elimination of filibusters, ‘holds’, and other stupid, archaic Senate rules. Support those and only those Senatorial candidates who pledge to abolish the filibuster.

    Ideally, we would support those and only those who pledge to abolish the *Senate*, but public opinion doesn’t seem to have caught up to the need for that yet.

  • Gordy

    the indirect subsidies are much larger for single-occupancy vehicles than for heavily-used mass transit, thanks to higher carbon emissions per passenger.

    Please substantiate this claim. Not that it’s relevant, anyway. The relevant comparison is between motor vehicles at average occupancy and mass transit at average occupancy. If you seriously think you can show that motor vehicle users receive more indirect subsidies per passenger-mile than transit users, please do so.

  • Eliminating these subsidies would increase the cost of driving by an average of something like 2%.

    You’re comparing apples to oranges. Eliminating direct subsidies would increase the taxes on national highways by between 100% and 400%, as per your paper; eliminating indirect subsidies would require a multi-dollar externality tax on gas. Private costs are a separate issue: living in an auto-dominated area requires you to buy, insure, and refill a car; living in a transit-dominated area requires you to pay higher rents.

  • Gordy

    You’re comparing apples to oranges. Eliminating direct subsidies would increase the taxes on national highways by between 100% and 400%, as per your paper;

    The paper I cited shows no such thing. Neither does the Subsidyscope study you yourself cited. Your Subsidyscope study found that over the past 10 years user fees have averaged around 75% of total highway funding.
    And you’re the one making the apples-to-oranges comparison. Highway construction and maintenance is only a small fraction of the total cost of driving. That’s why direct subsidies to motor vehicle users amount to only around 1 cent per passenger-mile, or around 2% of the total cost of driving. Direct subsidies to transit users are vastly higher. Fares only cover about 28% of the direct costs of providing transit services. The average transit ride for which the rider pays $1 or $2 costs more like $3 to $7 to provide in direct costs.

    eliminating indirect subsidies would require a multi-dollar externality tax on gas.

    As I already explained, indirect subsidies from unpriced negative externalities apply to both motor vehicles and transit. Transit buses and commuter rail run mainly on diesel fuel that has unpriced negative externalities. Electric rail transit runs mainly on electricity produced by coal, natural gas, and nuclear power plants, all of which have unpriced negative externalities. The indirect subsidies to transit from these unpriced externalities represent an additional subsidy, over and above the already-huge direct subsidy.

  • Norman said this: We continue to lose ground to nations that trust themselves enough to tax.

    And this is the crux of the matter. Americans don’t trust their government. And given the political mess the government is, it’s rightfully so…

  • David "Buster" Fitzpatrick

    It saddens me to see that the establishment Dems continue to sit on their hands while letting our public transit systems rot away from lack of funding in the form of fare increases and service cutbacks. The Republicans continue to gain not only a seat in the senate but appear to gain seats in state governerships possibly making transit funding even more difficult than before in spite of the recent change in the FTA’s transit funding criteria. I’m very concerned that we may wind up with another 50 years of domination of the dreaded automobile/suburban sprawl culture. For people like me who had to quit driving for various reasons as in my case due disagreements over the current auto safety policies(seatbelt laws & “click it or ticket” campaigns). Technically speaking I have a handicap much like blindness ‘though mental rather than physical. It seems to me that we need to radically change our transportation policies from what they have been for the past half century or more. If the current 2 party system cannot make it possible for alternatives to the autos ‘n airplanes culture to flourish then we need to look at overhauling our electorial system to allow alternative parties to be able run as well. On the state level(Calif)need to get a progressive governor and legislature in power so that we finally get some things done around here that should’ve been done a long time ago instead of letting it all rot away

    • Mike Orr

      “I’m very concerned that we may wind up with another 50 years of domination of the dreaded automobile/suburban sprawl culture.”

      The autotopia train has already passed and it won’t be coming back. Public desire for Levittowns started in the 20s but construction didn’t get really underway till the 60s and it peaked in the 80s. Public desire for in-city housing began growing in the 90s, and the last crash made it clear that the only kind of development that holds its real estate value is dense and walkable and near rail transit. A couple dozen cities have built light rail since 2000, and while I don’t think much of it is adequate, it always gets expanded. Cheap gas is gone and it’s just a question of whether it’s two years or four before it reaches $5/gallon. All the suburbs and exurbs have already been built. The closer-in ones will expand but the farther-out ones have already started becoming less desirable. Those blocks of empty houses didn’t happen in downtown SF and LA but in Stockon and Riverside where people didn’t really want to live anyway, it was just cheaper than the coast. So when they had an incentive to leave, they did. This will acelerate as the cost of living in the exurbs becomes untenable. So things are turning around, but it will still take twenty years until the pent-up demand for walkable neighborhoods becomes saturated and is no longer out of reach of so many people.

  • Norman Brown

    Ah but Nathaniel the filibuster can’t be killed with the existing structure of the Senate or else 15% of the population (human beings, not geography) will be able to pass legislation through the Senate, effectively disenfranchizing a majority in the house. The filibuster is both necessary (to protect the 67% in the largest 20 states) and oppresive (since in gives the veto pen to 10% in the smallest 20 states).

    Also, killing off a party to make space for another would not create a third party it would only replace the second.

  • Your Subsidyscope study found that over the past 10 years user fees have averaged around 75% of total highway funding.

    No, it says the user fees have declined and are now 67%. Did you actually read the link?

    And anyway, that’s just national highways. State highways are a lot more subsidized – the Texas DOT issued a report saying its best highways performed at 50%, and some performed at 16%, which was immediately buried because everyone just knows roads pay for themselves.

    Transit buses and commuter rail run mainly on diesel fuel that has unpriced negative externalities. Electric rail transit runs mainly on electricity produced by coal, natural gas, and nuclear power plants, all of which have unpriced negative externalities.

    Um, the emissions of the average heavy rail line in the US correspond to about 82 passenger-mpg driving.

    You know people are scraping the bottom of the barrel when they try arguing that driving pollutes less than taking the subway.

  • DBX

    We need to build political momentum towards making drivers pay more. I think there’s a lot to be said in favor of applying toll charges to the entire trunk highway network in this country . A large part of what is breaking the system is the cost of roads to nowhere such as the proposed replacement of US 20 in northwestern Illinois with an all-new limited access highway, a billion dollar project through an area whose chief economic asset is its natural beauty and appeal to tourism, an asset that would be severely diminished by the new road. The only part of US 20 that justifies even so much as a reroute is the long-proposed bypass around Galena; there’s no other section currently over 10,000 vehicles a day or indeed even close to 10,000. But this is what Governor Pat Quinn and northwestern Illinois economic development officials apparently believe is a sensible use of state resources.

    Change the financing from bonding to tolling and you’d immediately change that equation. Out would be boondoggles like US 20; in would be roads that are structurally desperately in need of reconstruction that aren’t in current capital plans such as North Lake Shore Drive US 41 in Chicago. It would be economically a more efficient use of resources; it would also level the playing field somewhat between freeway travel and rail as people would start to think of freeway use in terms of the toll as a fare.

    The fly in the ointment is that much of the right is apoplectic about the idea of tolling, kind of an irony seeing as they invented it and have dragged their feet on gas taxes. Look at the right’s opposition to raising tolls in Illinois for example. The Illinois Tollway system is one of the cheapest in the world, at 2.8 cents a mile electronic and 5.6 cents a mile cash — the electronic fare hasn’t changed since 1981 with the exception of a small stretch between Belvidere and the Wisconsin border on I-90. Had Illinois tolls kept pace with inflation from 1958, when the system opened, we’d now be at almost 16 cents a mile, a figure that is still cheap compared to tollways in other countries. But the Tea Party community in Illinois raged against George Ryan much more over his proposals to increase tolls than over his crooked behavior, and Blago’s way of defusing the process was to give I-pass holders continued access to the cheap toll and load it all on cash payers, i.e. out of state drivers.

    But the possibilities of tolling are attractive. The states would have a major new revenue stream against which to borrow — and if this revenue stream was legally restricted to capital projects (so no short-term plugging holes in budgets, please), there would be the money needed to alleviate road congestion with developing rail or other transit, whether we’re talking about speeding up service in areas that already have it, or providing service to areas that currently don’t.

  • Nathanael

    “Ah but Nathaniel the filibuster can’t be killed with the existing structure of the Senate or else 15% of the population (human beings, not geography) will be able to pass legislation through the Senate, effectively disenfranchizing a majority in the house.”

    That’s nonsense. Remember, a bill has to pass *both* the House and the Senate in order to pass. How does 15% of the population get control of the House? It’s not possible.

    Even in the most theoretically gerrymandered House possible, support of 25% of the population would be necessary to pass anything through the House.

    Anything which reduces the ability of the Senate to obstruct things helps democracy. Kill the filibuster now.

  • Nathanael

    “Please substantiate this claim.”

    Look up the DOE carbon intensity numbers.

  • Gordy

    No, it says the user fees have declined and are now 67%. Did you actually read the link?

    No, it says what I told you it says. Go to the page you linked to. Click on the link labeled “user fee revenues and allocations for download.” Scroll over to the column labeled “% user revenues as share of total highway funds.” You will see that the average figure over the last 10 years is around 75%. Neither your own link nor the study I linked to supports your absurd claim that “eliminating direct subsidies would increase the taxes on national highways by between 100% and 400%.” Your claim doesn’t even make sense. We don’t impose taxes on national highways.

  • Gordy

    Um, the emissions of the average heavy rail line in the US correspond to about 82 passenger-mpg driving.

    Um, unsubstantiated AND irrelevant.

    I repeat my challenge: If you seriously think you can show that motor vehicle users receive more indirect subsidies per passenger-mile than transit users, please do so.

  • Gordy, the 82 mpg figure comes from the FTA. The 100-400% figure comes from the 20-70 cents/gallon figure in your own study; the current gas tax level is 18.4 cents.

    67% is what Subsidy Scope says the recovery ratio for national highways is, today. Yes, it was higher 10 years ago; the entire point of the study is that national highways are increasingly subsidized today. What you’re doing is the equivalent of a politician who stares at a poll a week before the election saying he’s down 5 points, and then says that the average over the past 3 months has had him down by only 1 point, so he may actually win.

  • Gordy

    Alon,

    I see no 82 mpg figure in your link. Where is it? And what is your point in mentioning this number anyway?

    18.2 cents is only the FEDERAL gas tax. States impose additional taxes on gasoline. The total gas tax in California, for example, is 63.9 cents per gallon. An addition of 20 cents per gallon, to cover direct subsidies to motor vehicle users, would be an average of about 1 cent per vehicle-mile. This is about 2% of the average total cost per vehicle-mile of owning and operating an automobile. Increasing the cost of driving by 2% would have only a negligible effect on demand.

    Transit users, in contrast, receive about 70 cents on the dollar in direct subsidies. Increasing the cost of using transit to cover direct subsidies would triple or quadruple the price of tickets. That would have an enormous negative effect on demand.

  • The 82 mpg figure is on page 11. It’s given in emissions per passenger-mile; 82 is the conversion to passenger miles per gallon.

    The state gas taxes don’t cover road costs, either. California hasn’t studied this issue, but Texas has, and even without the effect of externalities, roads in Texas are subsidized between 50 and 84 cents on the dollar. With the effect of externalities, the gas tax would have to be raised between 3 and 15 dollars a gallon, depending on who you ask, in which case car ownership would probably drop to the level of Hong Kong and Singapore, which do not practice road socialism.

    Meanwhile, New York City Transit (subways plus buses) has a farebox recovery ratio of 40%, which does not include ancillary revenues from such sources as advertising.

  • Gordy

    The 82 mpg figure is on page 11.

    No, it isn’t. In fact, there’s no fuel efficiency data on page 11 of that document at all.

    The state gas taxes don’t cover road costs, either.

    That’s a different claim. I am responding to your nonsensical claim that a 20 cent/gallon increase in gas taxes would “increase the taxes on national highways by between 100% and 400%.” It’s just not true. And even if it were true, it’s irrelevant to the fact that 20 cents/gallon is just a tiny subsidy (less than one cent per passenger-mile), and is only a tiny fraction of the subsidies provided to mass transit users. Transit users receive vastly higher direct subsidies per passenger-mile of travel than motor vehicle users.

    And with respect to indirect subsidies, I repeat my challenge a third time: If you seriously think you can show that motor vehicle users receive more indirect subsidies per passenger-mile than transit users, please do so. And I do mean SHOW, with citations of relevant facts and evidence, not merely ASSERT with unsubstantiated claims.

  • Page 11 has emissions numbers.

    And you’re free not to believe the $5-15/gallon study I linked to.

  • Brad

    Er, no matter how much you support rail, Amtrak is still porktastic. The routes outside of the northeast are land cruises, not transportation, and there’s no reason to subsidize them. I’m open to subsidizing transit, but a once-a-day service with a per-passenger subsidy that costs as much as Southwest’s walk-up fare is something else entirely. And the Buy America Act has to go — again, the tax dollars should go to their stated purpose, not enriching well-connected companies and propping up the award-it-to-me-or-I’ll-sue *cough*Cubic*cough* business model.

  • Spokker

    Brad, fighting the politicians who want those Amtrak services to serve their localities is probably not worth the effort.

    Pork as a whole is made out to be a bigger deal than it really is. 1-2% of the federal budget is actually earmarks. Amtrak long-distance routes are a minuscule drop in the bucket that’s not worth blowing a gasket over.

    Getting pork under control wouldn’t even come close to getting us out of debt. And what’s wrong with politicians going to Washington to bring home federal dollars to their constituents? That’s really why *we* send those fuckers out in the first place.

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