» Objections to the Obama Administration’s high-speed rail initiative are indicative of a broader distaste for any public transportation spending.
The glee expressed by the commentariat — most conservative, though some to the left — over the decaying support for investing in the nation’s intercity rail system has been a telling indication of the degree to which too many Americans are willing to gloss over the demands of this growing country.
Convinced both that it would be too expensive to construct anything we do not already have and that the United States is so hewn to its automobile-oriented, mid-century landscape that it cannot change, this perspective appears to be gaining currency. To ill effect.
Though the conversation being had on the future of American transportation has been framed in terms of high-speed rail, a mode that has captured the minds of some and raised fury in others, the truth is that the ideological war being waged against increased investment in infrastructure applies to all modes of transportation. The crusade against government spending extends universally — and that means bike paths, light rail, and highways.
Yesterday’s Economist story on the nation’s transportation problems notes some of the most serious problems facing the world’s biggest economy: Infrastructure spending that is less than half of that in Europe and a third of that in China in terms of GDP; far too few funds dedicated to the maintenance of existing infrastructure; very low gas prices compared to just about everywhere else. Considering the lack of investment, the results are unsurprising: Very high traffic fatality rates and some of the longest commute times in the developed world. Not to mention our continued dependence on the congestion-causing, sprawl-inducing, pollution-generating private automobile.
Since 1990, the U.S. has added 60 million inhabitants, equivalent to the population of France. And yet our inflation-adjusted federal spending on transportation has declined, not just per capita but overall. The fuel tax has remained at 18.4¢ per gallon on gasoline in real dollars since 1993. 18.4¢ in 1993 is worth 27¢ today, which means that we have effectively reduced our annual buying power for roads, transit, and intercity rail by about 30% over the past 18 years. With gas prices rising and no political incentive to increase taxes, we will reduce our buying power even more over the next decade.
Are we out of our minds?
For those who want to remedy these issues, the political atmosphere in Washington is toxic: There is simply no real leadership on increasing public investment. As if compelled to express themselves through theatrics, members of the House and Senate — on both sides of the aisle — are now threatening to vote against raising the American debt ceiling because they think we should “do something” about the deficit. Doing something for them, of course, means reducing government expenditures, whether in the form of aid to the poor or, in this case, transportation.
In transportation, we are shying away from major new projects like high-speed rail because they do not fit in with contemporary American commuting trends — forgetting the fact that the U.S. car reliance is a constructed one. We spent massively to create the highway network, and the result is that it is now the backbone of most Americans’ daily commutes. There was nothing natural about that process, and no reason to think that it cannot be reversed if we thought differently about our transportation system development. We are adding population at such a quick rate that we could encourage different commuting trends if we want to, but only if we invest the resources to do so.
Much of the recent conversation has been about increasing funds for transportation by “leveraging” private-sector funding through an infrastructure bank or public-private partnerships, usually in the form of toll roads. While these are realistic ways to increase investment, they can not be expected to keep up with the demand of Americans for more accessibility — especially if we have any interest in encouraging the sustainable growth of our cities.
Private sector actors will invest in new highways on greenfields because they can be assured that they can pay off initial construction costs through tolls. These projects, however, have the enormously problematic effect of increasing sprawl and decentralization by improving accessibility to places at the far extents of our metropolitan areas. In the long term, allowing such projects to dominate the nation’s infrastructure investments means a giveaway to developers of exurban communities. Should that be a national priority?
It is possible to collect funds by tolling urban roadways or selling those assets to private investors. Yet, as proven by the experience in New York, introducing charges on existing free roads is not a policy that can be implemented easily. Even if it were, in most places collected revenues by a private road corporation would only go to the upkeep of the affected roads and into the pockets of shareholders, not to a region’s broader transportation network.
Moreover, though it may sound appealing to simply sell off infrastructure assets to private corporations and tell them to take responsibility for charging customers for their use of the system, doing so would fail to absorb the negative externalities resulting from congestion, pollution, and second-order effects like suburban sprawl and income inequality. Transit systems, which operate at a loss because they offer social remedies to each of those problems, would have no hope surviving in such a system.
Indeed, the government must play the key role in developing the transportation system. Only the public sector, with the ability to take out loans at low interest rates, can make investments that are designed with the society’s long-term interest in mind. Only the government can accept losses in part of the transportation system because it recognizes that those losses represent gains to the society in other ways. To expect the private sector to fill those shoes would be absurd.
Though they influence it, political leaders react to the demands of their constituents; if popular sentiment were clearly oriented towards increased government investment in transportation, there would be political effort extended towards it. Can we criticize the lack of public interest in the subject? After all, we have spent the last decade yelling back-and-back across the aisle over proposed projects, calling every scheme a “boondoggle” no matter its individual merits. And despite going on a road binge for the past sixty years, congestion is worse than ever in most metropolitan regions. The suburban dream of shopping malls and single-family homes continues to exist for many, but it has degraded into abandonment and foreclosure for too many others. So why spend on more?
Those in favor of increased infrastructure investments must make a stronger argument demonstrating why investments today can result in more positive effects in the future. From my perspective, redefining transportation policy with an emphasis on efforts to improve our cities through densification and the choice of alternatives to the automobile will represent an important and realistic effort to improve the country’s transport system. Yet that cannot occur without serious support from public sector actors who appear to have left the country.