Finance Social Justice

A Renewed Look at Federal Funding for Transit Operations

» With a budget stalemate in Congress, the future for transit funding may increasingly be in the hands of state and local governments. But that could magnify seriously inequitable outcomes, an analysis of data from 65 cities shows.

The federal transportation program is at a crossroads. Congress is apparently incapable of advancing new or expanded funding for roads and transit, and has even passed legislation cutting back on previously approved appropriations.

The stalemate has left academics and commentators grasping about for a solution. Some, as Eric Jaffe profiled in an article this week, suggest that a decline in Washington’s role in funding transportation infrastructure may lead to better decisions by states and localities about how to invest; too many projects, they argue, are poorly designed or executed, in part because of federal sway. In theory, states and cities will raise the funds for their transportation spending themselves and make better decisions as a result.

The federal government’s influence is undeniable, as illustrated by the vast expansion in streetcar projects around the country that followed the Obama Administration’s decision to pump money into them. While few critiques have mentioned that Washington’s role is far more oriented towards providing funding than mandating one approach over another, with the federal government pulling out, states and localities will be more likely to pursue their own course in terms of what kinds of transportation projects should be funded.

Missing from this conversation, however, is the arguably more important issue of how transit operations should be funded. While America’s infrastructure is deteriorating, the most important question for the large majority of the nation’s public transportation users (or potential users) is how often a bus will show up nearby and whether it will take them efficiently to employment or other destinations. While the federal government currently chips in for new vehicles, it rarely spends much of its own money on hiring drivers and paying for fuel (though it chipped in until the 1980s); most of those expenses are covered by passenger fares and subsidies from state and local governments.

But should Washington be more involved?

About a year ago, I reviewed data from 15 cities to evaluate how local funding affected outcomes. Because of the increasingly relevant public discussion on the issue of decentralizing transportation funding, I wanted to reexamine this issue with a larger dataset of all 65 U.S. metropolitan areas with populations of more than 800,000.* In order to conduct this analysis, I took advantage of data provided by the National Transit Database and the Brookings Institution. These sources provided comprehensive information about metropolitan area income and transit spending, both of which I have compared extensively below. Note that the charts below were generated using and must be viewed on the website for interactive capability.

The findings, to summarize them quickly, are revealing of the significant potential downside of funding transit operations only at the local or state level. The data demonstrate that increasing local and state transit operations spending is closely correlated with metro area median household income and poverty rates. This is not the case for federal aid, as minimal as it is. In addition, though cities and states with more progressive electoral tendencies appear to be able to increase local funding for transit operations, that contribution may be significantly limited by the incomes of local inhabitants.

In other words, differing local incomes (the wealth of a region’s inhabitants) appear to be considerably affecting the level of transit service provided to the inhabitants of various regions. Since public transportation is a vital social service, this has the perverse impact of providing the least support to the regions that likely need it most.

This review suggests therefore that there is considerable reason to be skeptical of decentralizing transit funding. Indeed, it indicates that a centralization of spending at the federal level could improve outcomes in terms of regional equity by allowing a redistribution of resources based on need rather than ability to pay.


If local and state governments are tasked with assuming all funding responsibilities for paying for transit operations, the question is whether the result will be a significant divergence in funding for poor metropolitan areas as compared to wealthy ones (after all, it is worth remembering that American regions differ greatly in terms of income, which of course affects local tax revenues).

We already have considerable evidence, based on current local and state funding of transit operations, as shown in Figure 1.

The chart indicates that there is a relatively strong correlation between metropolitan area median household income and the combination of state and local per-capita transit operations funding (R-squared of 0.29). To a significant degree, this makes a lot of sense, since regions with higher levels of tax revenue are able to contribute a more significant amount of funding towards local services. Without aid from the national level, it becomes difficult for poorer cities to pay for the transit systems their wealthier peers can.

Figure 1: Metro area median household incomes versus per capita transit operations spending (state and local levels)

Figure 2 documents some of the very negative consequences of having income as a primary determinant of spending on transit operations. Regions with the highest levels of poverty (closely correlated in itself to lower levels of per capita household income) also clearly have the lowest levels of expenditure on transit operations per capita.

This is a paradox: The regions with relatively lower levels of poverty (such as Washington and Boston) can spend significantly more of their local and state funds on transit operations than regions with higher levels of poverty (such as Detroit and Memphis). None of this indicates that lower levels of poverty (or higher incomes) guarantee more transit funding, but rather that they allow for them. Poorer regions simply can’t afford to pay for better services.**

Figure 2: Metro area poverty rates versus per capita transit operations spending (state and local levels)

How can we explain why some regions pay for higher levels of transit spending and other do not? Figure 3 offers a suggestion.

Among the wealthiest metropolitan areas (those in the 4th quartile), there is a very strong correlation between the share of the vote President Obama received in 2012 in the core county of the region and the per-capita state and local spending on transit operations (an R-squared of 0.77). This indicates that wealthy regions with more progressive populations have pursued policies that result in higher spending on transit.

However, this appears to be less true for lower-income regions, even with progressive populations. Detroit, New Orleans, and St. Louis, for example, have very progressive populations in terms of their voting habits but do not spend nearly as much as other Democratic Party-voting cities. One clear explanation for the difference is that those cities have far lower median household incomes, reducing their tax bases.

Figure 3: Core county support for President Obama versus per capita transit operations spending (state and local levels)

State-level support for transit operations is also clearly influenced by partisan issues, which is good news for those who believe that states should decide independently what is “right” for them. Figure 4 compares the state vote share for President Obama in 2012 with the per-capita state-only spending on metropolitan area transit operations (not including local contributions), and there is a strong correlation (an R-squared of 0.44). There is a clear cutoff between states where a majority of citizens voted for the Democratic presidential nominee (many of which provided generous support for transit operations in their metropolitan areas), and states where a minority did (where most provided virtually no state support to metropolitan area transit operations).

This comparison raises a very significant problem with the idea of promoting a state and local monopoly over transit spending. Cities like Atlanta and St. Louis, which have considerable local support for progressive politics, are nevertheless handicapped by conservative-dominated state politics that refuse to contribute state funds to public transportation.

Figure 4: State support for President Obama versus per capita transit operations spending (state level only)

In sum, this evidence suggests that states and local governments, left to their own devices, will restrict funding on transit operations based on the income of their inhabitants, not based on need. It is not rational that the state and local funding for transit in San Jose is more than six times higher than that in Fresno, just 150 miles apart, much because of the latter’s significantly lower household incomes and more Republican voting tendencies. Fresno, after all, has more than double the poverty rate of San Jose and thus has a significant transit-dependent population that is not being appropriately served.

These data indicate that there is a potentially very important role for the federal government to act as a redistributive agent. If public transportation is an essential social service — almost as important to our society as Medicare or Medicaid or Social Security (that is what we think, right?) — then how is it fair for the people who live in the poorest metropolitan areas to suffer from inadequate transportation services? Why should cities, even if they have progressive populations themselves, have to suffer from low state funding because of conservative legislators?

At heart, this is the logic behind advocating a significant role for the federal government in funding public transportation operations. We cannot simply devolve decision making and financing to state and local governments and hope that the “right” choices get made, with no regard to the regressive impacts of, in effect, asking poorer cities to live within their means as the wealthier profit from theirs.

Of course, the federal government already does fund some public transportation around the country, and it sometimes, albeit not always, mandates rules. How well has this management functioned, in particular in addressing discrepancies between different cities based on their respective wealth?

Washington’s critics argue that the central government’s decisions have produced poor outcomes in capital construction. This may be true; the federal government’s interventions resulted in massive subsidies for automobiles over the past sixty years, with only a relative pittance devoted to transit. Why should we trust Congress or the Department of Transportation to make the right choices, based on that example?

But a clearheaded look at the evidence indicates that Washington has used its transit operations spending to advance redistributive principles. As shown in Figure 5, transit operations spending by the federal government in metropolitan areas across the country has no correlation with regional household incomes or poverty rates. The funding formulas developed by the Congress may not be perfect, but at least they are not discriminating between metro areas based on their respective incomes.

Figure 5: Local/state per capita transit operations spending versus federal per capita transit operations spending

This indicates that Washington is, at least in this way, a reasonable custodian of government dollars when it comes to financing transit operations. To dismiss the federal government’s role is to ignore its important redistributive powers — its ability to transfer tax revenues from wealthier regions to poorer ones to help contribute to a more just society.

But the contribution of the federal government remains quite small, representing on average only about one-fifth of overall spending on transit operations in the U.S. Most federal transportation dollars are committed to capital expenditures, with just a small amount oriented towards operations. As a result, overall spending on public transit operations remains heavily tilted towards wealthier regions.

A more equitable funding system would take into account the differences in income and poverty rates across region and attempt to provide adequate transit services everywhere. To a certain degree, this is an impossibility in a country where so few national resources are devoted to running our buses and trains. Yet what seems evident is that a policy that orients funding towards states and localities will only encourage the unequal funding devoted to transit in rich and poor cities.

Update: It is worth questioning whether the differences in funding between high- and low-income metropolitan areas are, in part, a reflection of higher labor costs because of higher incomes there, as commentor Jeff argues. However, a comparison of metro area poverty and transit service hours (which are almost directly connected with transit service miles according to the data), shows very similar correlations as a comparison of metro area poverty and local and state transit funding, as shown in Figure 6 (the same is true for a comparison of metro household income with service hours). This reaffirms the argument that transit provision is to a significant degree the product of local wealth.

Figure 6: Local/state per capita transit operations spending versus transit vehicle service hours per capita

Note:  Metropolitan area household income quartiles are defined as follows: 1st Quartile, $46,821; Median, $52,610; 3rd Quartile, $57,764.

* With the exclusion of Salt Lake City, for which inadequate information was available. The 65 metropolitan areas studied here are: Albany, Albuquerque, Allentown, Atlanta, Austin, Bakersfield, Baltimore, Baton Rouge, Birmingham, Boston, Bridgeport, Buffalo, Charlotte, Chicago, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Columbus, Dallas, Dayton, Denver, Detroit, El Paso, Fresno, Hartford, Honolulu, Houston, Indianapolis, Jacksonville, Kansas City, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Louisville, Memphis, Miami, Milwaukee, Minneapolis, Nashville, New Haven, New Orleans, New York City, Oklahoma City, Omaha, Orlando, Oxnard, Philadelphia, Phoenix, Pittsburgh, Portland (Oregon), Providence, Raleigh, Richmond, Riverside, Rochester, Sacramento, San Antonio, San Diego, San Francisco, San Jose, Seattle, St. Louis, Tampa, Tucson, Tulsa, Virginia Beach, and Washington.

** That said, we must allow for the possibility of a chicken-and-egg problem; are the regions with better transit wealthier because of those transportation options?

54 replies on “A Renewed Look at Federal Funding for Transit Operations”

Thoughtful comments as always. Transit is labor intensive and, consequently, more expensive to operate in regions with high household incomes. I wonder if your analysis would hold up comparing measures of service provision — per capita revenue hours or miles — with income rather than a measure of expenditure on service.

On a related note–heavily Democratic regions are more likely to have powerful unions representing transit workers (and in some cases may exhibit signs of agency capture). “Red” areas are more likely to have polities that are hostile to unions, and/or to engage in tactics such as privatization or other means of driving labor costs down.

As I posted in the update above, I think there is clear evidence that the higher labor costs in Democratic and/or wealthier cities are not significant enough to change the equation significantly: Wealthier cities, on average, provide more transit vehicle hours than their poorer counterparts, despite higher labor costs.

Yep, here in St. Louis the core counties pay between 3/4 and 1% in sales tax for public transit, pretty high amount I’d say, yet the state of Missouri contributes almost nothing, making any expansion of our light rail system almost impossible. If we had state funding like other states with our sales tax I think we’d have a very good system, on the flipside though it was largely because of the lack of state funding that such high sales taxes were passed.

Ha. In Snohomish County, WA I pay .9% for local transit and .9% for regional transit. That’s 1.8% and no local service on Sunday because the decline in sales. But we are building subway light rail. It’s possible to move around the core regional locations pretty easy by transit here. We also pay .3% motor vehicle excise tax and in Seattle (King County) they pay $20 for car tabs and some other taxes. Some of those are expiring and causing a “fiscal cliff” situation unless something happens in the legislature which is split between D House and a coalition Senate with joint party leadership of transportation. So far the options have looked ugly and hitched onto massive roadbuilding, but too little maintenance… Operations funding at the state level or at least granting locals a diverse set of options makes a lot of sense in states that are doing well and can balance themselves. We could use more stable funding that isn’t as regressive as sales taxes, but there is a strange aversion to property tax, fees or car charges, even in SW Washington, which would benefit the most from less reliance on sales tax because they are already at a disadvantage to Oregon right across the river which has none.

It seems to me that the best thing about Democracy is that people get the government they choose. People in “red” states don’t want transit, and if it’s provided, they don’t ride it.

They believe it’s a “crime train” or “loot rail” or a “boondoggle” or “crony unionism” or whatever on and on ad infinitum.

They will simply not be swayed, so let’s all just concentrate on getting the legislatures in the “blue” states to give cities more freedom to tax themselves for operations and capital projects.

Eventually the greater human capital efficiency of denser, more overtly “urban” cities will mean that an ever increasing percentage of GDP will be generated in the “blue” areas. The “red” states will either see the light of sink underneath the waves, becoming like the Mexico of the 1980’s, pre-Salinas. Oligarchies are economically wasteful, as well as being brutal.

Good research! A response to your concluding question “are the regions with better transit wealthier because of those transportation options?”

Although historically, the GOP has not cottoned to significant capital funding of Transit projects. Since 2010 however, the GOP has taken things to a new low. They’ve even cut funding to Federal Highways, a long-time bi-partisan favorite.

In the short term, citizens will only notice more potholes and reduced bus service. If GOP obstructionism continues over the long term, our wealthier metro areas and states will fare somewhat better, but a number of poorer rural (Red) states and metro areas within them will get worse. Unfortunately, we will see some dramatic bridge failures.

Big picture, America’s total transportation-related costs (more money spent on car repairs, sitting in traffic congestion, more air pollution) will increase even more compared to the EU, Japan and China.

Excellent analysis. Reminds me of Jeff Sach’s “poverty traps”. Poor, transit-dependent groups make do with bare bones transit access, impeding access to jobs while fed funds are cut and less progressive states continue to disinvest in transit, further jeopardizing equitable job access.

I don’t think that the fact poor cities have less money to invest in transportation is, alone and on itself, a valid argument for more federally-financed transit – especially money for operations instead of capital projects -.

It is a problem, indeed, that manifests first and foremost on public education funding inequalities. Yet, I don’t like this idea of using the federal government funding of local transport operations as a proxy that avoids a much-needed, but ugly discussion about how much wealth transfer is acceptable (as in taxing people in San Jose more as a % of their income to provide services in Fresno, to keep the example used by Yonah).

Putting more control in the hands of state legislators would be the worst thing that could happen to the American transportation network.
We already suffer from an inept and ineffective federal government that thinks tax breaks for multinational corporations is a more effective job creator than putting shovels in the ground and building physical infrastructure. So the idea of having rural dominated state legislators having less money to build more highways to nowhere at the expense of major metropolitan multimodal systems is a joke.
A perfect example is what is happening here in Missouri, where the yahoos are proposing a 10 year “sales tax” to fund infrastructure….ahem….highways to nowhere….without the mention of public transit.

Thanks for the comment, been a couple years since living in St. Louis and still own a house there. Missouri statehouse is mind boggling. Their answer to a huge underfunded rural highway system and deteriorating I-70 is a sales tax proposal that passed the Missouri Senate the other day. A GOP who argues that Amtrak and other transit should pay its own way while passing a sales tax so everybody can pay for roads. God forbid if a trucker pays the full impact/costs through a toll or increased gas tax. About two faced as you can get. St. Louis and KC are going to get hosed by this proposal but have no faith in Gov Nixon.

The supreme court has ruled that all state legislative districts should contain roughly equal apportionment of population. Baker v. Carr and Reynolds v. Sims. So the idea of rural dominated legislatures is a holdover from before the 1960’s. Larger legislative bodies would grant better representation in all areas, but it would still be apportioned equally. A fixed population limit for districts would go further by maintaining citizens power over legislators while diminishing each legislators power in the legislature as total population grew. The current system of a fixed number of legislators preserves their power and diminishes the citizens power over them with each successive census.

“So the idea of rural dominated legislatures is a holdover from before the 1960′s. ”

Fact is that, in NY State at least, the “rural dominated house” — the state senate — has maintained its position by using extreme gerrymandering for the last 40 years after Baker v. Carr.

Gerrymandering has, essentially, allowed 25% of the population to control an entire house of the state legislature.

Only now are population trends beginning to make that imposssible; pulling it off with less than 25% of the population is extremely hard.

Well, here in Ohio, TeaBagger reactionaries have pulled our state out of the Midwest HighSpeed Rail Compact, among other warpt decisions. They’ve virually slashed any kind of funding for any kind of alternative to highways and withdrawn from any partipation in federal transit funding. I knew things weren’t going to be exactly rosy for anything other than highways but I never expected such a reprehenssible set of backward moves like we’ve just experienced in Ohio. The sad part about all of this is that Kasich and his fellow TeaBaggers are looking absolutey invulnerable in next year’s midterm elections, at least here in Ohio. I’ve read that Obama is looking to get a Democratic majority in the House but with the Teabaggers luck and skill, thatjust simply can’t happen. the Republicans may have lost a few sseats in each house this last time but TeaBaggers/Republican Party is the future of American Politics, pure and simple.

The Republicans are a dead party in the long run. Unfortunately, the short run is quite long.

This is like the 1850s, when the pro-slavery interests kept winning, over and over again. They didn’t keep it up into the next decade, FWIW.

I’m sorry to see that Kasich has managed to remain *popular*. The same is not true of Snyder or Walker.

Another chicken-and-egg question. Do the wealthy cities with high transit expenditure and high Democratic vote spend money on transit because they vote Democratic, or do they vote Democratic because they have many transit riders?

@Ben Ross,

They spend money on transit because they can’t exist without it. Even Republicans support transit in the New York metroplex. Nearly 95% of trips into lower Manhattan during the AM rush are accomplished by something other than a private automobile. Most of those non-auto trips — not all, but most — are “transit” of one agency or another.

There simply is not enough room in lower Manhattan (or the Chicago Loop or the Financial District in San Francisco, or even in downtown Seattle) to store all the cars necessary to accommodate the people who work there, should they choose or be forced to drive rather than riding transit.

There is simply no argument with this physical reality.

Even if there was enough parking many of them wouldn’t make it into work because they would be stuck in the gridlock in and around downtown.

Ohio, Florida, Wisconsin and Missouri are lost causes until the next election.

Aside from NY, California, Illinois governors, who already get it, governors of states containing Seattle, Philly, Pittsburgh, Baltimore, suburban DC, Minneapolis-St Paul, Richmond, Norfolk, Memphis, Nashville, Louisville, Indy, Dallas, Houston, San Antonio, Atlanta, Portland, Denver, and New Orleans need to step up a remind citizens of the importance of Transit funding in their major cities, because it helps the entire state generate more GDP. Unless they are so blinded by Tea Party dogma, this should be as obvious to them as it is to Chris Christie.

It would be interesting to know how other factors, like metro area population density, play into this. For example, the San Jose metro area is more than 50% denser on averge than metropolitan density, making San Jose easier to serve with transit.

This article made me cringe. It seems entirely written for liberals who favor redistribution where broad circumstance has created harmful inequities at the level of communities, but I think the language of need and ability (straight from marx) is a huge red herring if you even hope to engage a conservative audience. That appears necessary if any progress before 2015 is hoped for. Conservatives see these things at a more individualized level. They don’t rule out the role of luck and circumstance entirely, but they are more likely to see “ability to pay” as a result of effort and merit, while “need” arises from the consequence of making poor choices or insufficient effort. Their worldview says that if the latter is rewarded and the former punished, the moral order that incentivizes work and keeps society together will crumble. Liberals think this sacrifice of individuals to the greater good is cruel and heartless, and they would contend that the safety net empowers more people to take risk and make significant contributions than would do so without it.

The language Yonah uses is likely to turn off many before a conversation can even begin. Liberals want systems that reward cooperation and deliver more equitable outcomes, while conservatives favor equitable opportunities and competition that rewards virtue. I, like many Americans, find myself somewhere in the middle.

I understand the point Yonah is making that federal resources could have a bigger impact in places with less financial “capacity” to help themselves, and more potential people that would find transit’s value proposition positive. It would seem wise to direct spending to areas where ridership potential is high and financial capacity is low. Unfortunately, I don’t think this addresses the concern about regions that choose a low level of investment in themselves for reasons other than financial capacity. They could be rewarded while places willing to put up their own funds would be left without a partner and actually worse off for having their paid taxes diverted elsewhere via DC.

If we flipped federal assistance to operations instead of capital expenses then safety, reliability and (ironically)coverage would suffer. The enticement of a few extra trips in the peak (where the feds would want to spend ops money) is not a compelling enough reason to spend local dollars on a shiny new bus or 20, so that would be passed up by poorer communities. On the other hand, when the feds give you shiny new buses, and transit centers for them to serve, it is embarassing not to come up with local funds to operate them. The other option is to completely federalize transit and have them pay for ops and capital costs in poor cities. That likely will not get a majority of votes.

Thoughtful comments, but I doubt that you’ve been following this blog very long. If you had you would have read many building blocks articles and thoughtful community comments filling in more “holes” to justify why our Top 100 Metro Areas urgently need more transit investment.

“They don’t rule out the role of luck and circumstance entirely, but they are more likely to see “ability to pay” as a result of effort and merit, while “need” arises from the consequence of making poor choices or insufficient effort. ”

The problem is that they’re simply wrong, as an empirical matter. I find that worldview very attractive. But it’s simply false.

(This is easy enough to demonstrate by looking at the actual competence of most of our billionaires: they got there by accidents of birth (Koch brothers) or knowing the right people (bank CEOs) and they don’t know what the hell they’re doing.)

Now there’s a political art to appealing to people who believe things about reality which are plainly and simply false. It’s called “lying to them”. I am personally no good at this.

That really isn’t true. Yes some people are born more privelaged but if you do the hard work than you will be successful in American society.

BTW whats wrong with the Koch brothers, is it because they’re Republican. Do you share a similar disdain for people like Jeffery Immelt.

As you raise Immelt, ponder this: Immelt is involved in one of Obama’s “jobs growth” committees and recently GE, having built a new railway locomotive factory in Texas (a right to work for poverty wages state) has now announced that the existing factory in Erie, PA, will be shut down unless union workers there would like to work at Texas wages. Care to bet whether the engines produced in Texas will be discount priced to the RRs?

As to your “work hard, you will prosper” belief, clearly you are ignoring the inequality in hiring that still persists as well as the lack of available capital in many segments of our country thus stifling entrepreneurial efforts.

OMG! people are not going to win arguments of lib. vs. cons here. Please. There are extreme examples of all kinds – rich slacking inheritors and deadbeats scamming SSI disability, hard workers that never got ahead and some that made it big from nothing. Every combination of effort and circumstance is unique but if we have to generalize we can say that you probably won’t make it without your own effort AND some help – whether that’s your parents, private charity, government, or just dumb luck. Get over it and stop arguing it wasting space here!

My point was to see if the goal can be described in better language. Something appealing to both sides so it has a chance of being discussed. That’s all. I don’t give a darn who’s right or left or wrong or center. If you can’t acknowledge that other people’s experience can lead to a different viewpoint equally as valid as your own, your life must be frustrating. Please comment on the TRANSIT policy, or the blog language, cuz so far everyone here has failed. :(

the TRANSIT policy of the one percent was ably shown yesterday as the Senate voted to “rescue” airline travelers from the pain of the sequester. See Yonah’s post above this thread. When the Congress acts that rapidly to restore funding to transit agencies in funding crises, I will be walking on ice in hell.
My patience with the one per cent expired several decades ago and while it would be “nicer” to politely engage them AS IF they could be persuaded by a sense of community and the pragmatic value of greater parity of wealth, they have demonstrated time and again that they are not interested. I mostly hope the far right will die off to be replaced from the younger generations who actually are willing to admit global warming, prefer cities to sprawlburbs, don’t care whom we sleep with, and with any luck will create what I dreamed of in the 60s but got stalled courtesy of the Republican southern strategy.
As long as we prefer to spend twice to three times as much to incarcerate those whom we don’t bother to educate AND integrate (in all senses of the term) into the productive sector of the economy we are doomed.
Frustrated? damn straight.

Thomas, I’ve been reading for about 4 1/2 years. I agree transit needs more funding, from more stable sources. That won’t happen if the case for it alienates conservatives with marxist language. It won’t happen on the basis of transit’s redistributive beneficence. It will only happen if we can find common ground through language and descriptions that have broad appeal.

The post made a strong identification of the problematic mismatch in transit spending and potential transit markets. I agree that there could be a better ROI for federal dollars if poverty or area-income was a more prominent criteria for investments in transit. However, I can’t support federal funding of operations in large metro systems. I did supported it as a short term patch during the recession, but long-term I think it is very problematic and would come with too many strings that degrade local control. There are better ways to address the frustration in states that don’t help their transit systems as much as they could. Big city mayors need to get serious about density, parking control and dedicated operating ROW. None of those things require state or federal assistance and they are the cheapest things that poor cities could do to dramatically improve transit in the next 10 years.

Targeting federal investments would require complex calculations of objective facts like how poor an area is or how many 0 car HH’s it has, but also a series of value judgements as to what is a reasonable level of local or state support, what sources it should be derived from (regressive sales taxes as in WA, progressive income taxes as in OR or property taxes as in …MI?), how should funds be allocated between local/commuter, rail/bus, city/suburb, midday/peak/late-night, etc… What level of productivity is required? How long would federal assistance continue? A hornet’s nest – beware! Local operating agencies have natural incentives to raise more money to fund operations, because most of it is spent on salaries and stays in the local economy, and because service is what their constituents ask for and respond to, rather than capital spending which is often going to a distant manufacturer, consultant or contractor and takes longer to spend than a political term-of-office.

That said, I could change my thinking if there were a tailored solution that addressed those concerns and the federal involvement in operating decisions was limited. Perhaps they could require less local match for new starts in “qualifying” areas. Maybe they could focus a program on improving operational efficiency to reduce costs in those areas with less tax capacity. They could directly subsidize the purchase of transit passes by low-income persons. Those are things conservatives might discuss favorably, but when your argument includes taking from those with the Ability to pay and giving to those with Need, it will land straight in the trash bin of Soviet subway history. The problem is summed up by one of Yonah’s statement’s – “To dismiss the federal government’s role is to ignore its important redistributive powers — its ability to transfer tax revenues from wealthier regions to poorer ones to help contribute to a more just society” —- That is an entirely Liberal view of what is Just – based on outcomes. As I explained before, conservative principles are antagonistic to the notion that it is just to take from those who have and give to those who need. Even though in this case it would help their districts, I would be astonished if you could engage them in conversation on this basis. Personally I am not a huge fan of redistribution as altruism, but I see a role for it when necessary to prevent unequal distributions of wealth from manifesting as unequal distributions of power that undermine functional democracy and maintenance of a republican form of government.

How do we avoid alienating the deluded, who strongly believe things which are plainly contrary to reality?

I don’t know. I think it can only be done by lying to them. I don’t like that.

Nathanael, The first step to not alienating people with different backgrounds, values and opinions than you is to stop referring to them as “deluded.” When you assert that “The problem is that they’re simply wrong, as an empirical matter” but fail to provide numbers, you insult without producing any advance in the conversation. Their view is not “Simply wrong.” It is Simply True. But in complexity it breaks down, just like the liberal view.

Most of us know people who are lazy or reckless and people who work hard and smart, and on average the people who are laziest end up in the most need (of anything and everything you can give them) and the people who work hard and smart end up with the most ability to help others, not because they are billionaires, but because they don’t spend everything they earn, they save and they plan.

Of course, Conservatives who put everything onto individuals and ignore context have gone too far. Same with Liberals who think that we can solve every resource problem by taking from the haves and giving to the have nots. Both views conform to some observable aspect of reality, and ignore other aspects that are important.

Liberals view of fairness is if 2 people make the same effort they should get the same benefit and everyone should have basic needs assured – but they ignore the case of two people making different efforts or they rationalize why the person making less effort is entitled to the benefits produced by the other.

Conservatives view of fairness is if two people make a different level of effort, the one who worked harder should benefit more, and they ignore the case of those who work equally hard without the same reward or those who are equally lazy but unduly benefit (through ownership, inheritance, etc.)

The reason for my post was not to defend or malign either philosophical pole, but to point out that language matters because it signals underlying beliefs and assumptions. If conservatives and liberals need to agree for action to happen on transit then we should look for solutions that can appeal to both values systems, rather than trumpeting proposals that antagonize a particular audience.
It is possible.

Conservatives view of fairness is if two people make a different level of effort, the one who worked harder should benefit more

So tell us, just what is Paris Hilton doing that makes her income so high? Or what Mitt Romney did that made Bain et. al. cut him checks even though he didn’t work there anymore.

Conservatives view of fairness is also that it’s about luck. Or good fortune. Or the inexplicable beneficence of God who afflicts Job (a righteous man) but allows the evil to flourish.

At the bottom of THAT is religious-based humility. And at the bottom of the liberal desire for redistribution through social engineering is the arrogance that we can play God.

But none of this should be taken simplistically. Let’s all try to raise the philosophical and intellectual bar by avoiding dumbed down flame wars.

A significant minority of them believe, though they wouldn’t put into these words, that God must love rich people, otherwise he wouldn’t have made them rich.

Ding ding ding. Prosperity gospel (which has nothing to do with the actual gospels in the Bible).

All the rest of it is bafflegab to cover up this belief.

“Conservatives view of fairness is also that it’s about luck. Or good fortune. Or the inexplicable beneficence of God who afflicts Job (a righteous man) but allows the evil to flourish.

At the bottom of THAT is religious-based humility”

In short, they believe that unlucky people deserve to suffer and that we should let them suffer.

This is, not to mince words, *evil*. People with that attitude have no place in civilized society.

And by the way? The God of the Book of Job?

Clearly evil. No two ways about it.

When the Book of Job was written, Yahweh was not expected to be good nor was he considered to be good; he was merely considered to be in charge, and you were stuck with him. This is a fear-based religious view, and while it certainly has some logic to it (if Stalin says to do this, perhaps you’d better do it so you don’t get sent to the gulags), it’s the exact opposite of good.

I know this is off-topic, but I have a friend who had some really random bad luck. A lot of it. She was Christian, so she read the Book of Job attempting to understand.

She’s an atheist now. She decided that if there was a God like the one in the Book of Job, he wasn’t worthy of worship.


Are you the same person who posts on STB under this name? If so, do you live in the PNW? I appreciate your posts.

In reference to your friend, the whole idea of a God who is all knowing, all powerful and everywhere present and “has a plan for my life” is pretty damn depressing. Yahweh, the Greatest Puppeteer in the Universe.

I can live with the existence of a First Cause that knows nothing of the future and is passionately living through all of us to see what’s gonna’ happen!

And isn’t that d.p. guy a pain in the butt….?

…”and they ignore the case of those who work equally hard without the same reward or those who are equally lazy but unduly benefit (through ownership, inheritance, etc.)”…

“Most of us know people who are lazy or reckless and people who work hard and smart, and on average the people who are laziest end up in the most need (of anything and everything you can give them) and the people who work hard and smart end up with the most ability to help others, not because they are billionaires, but because they don’t spend everything they earn, they save and they plan. ”

Not really. This is just not reality.

Non-rich people who work hard and smart usually end up in terrible shape due to accidents, medical problems, bosses out to get them, etc. — bbut occasionally manage to do well.

People born rich, even if they’re lazy AND reckless, usually do quite well for themselves. Even if they DO spend everything they earn.

In short, inherited money is a greater predictor of future success than talent. *There are actual studies demonstrating this now*. This wasn’t always the case; during the 1950s, when we had redistributive taxation, talent was a better predictor than inherited money.

That’s not the world we live in any more, and it’s because we DON’T have redistributive taxation.

You can continue on rhetorically attacking or ignoring other points of view. You can stand on the hill of logic that raises you above everyone else. But if you don’t ever say anything that convinces others to work with you, they won’t.

The current situation of the US federal government is one in which nothing will happen without dealmaking. In order to strike a deal both sides have to feel they are getting something. You can’t demand that philosophical opponents roll over and expect it will happen, nor vice-versa. To get what you want, you need to trade. To trade, you need to know what the other side wants. To know what the other side wants, you need to hear what they are saying and understand what they value. To hear what they are saying, you need to listen.

I think we need humility, not of the religious sort, but simply to know that many of our political decisions are not of a nature that one choice is right and the other wrong. Instead, they are an expression of preference, and preference reflects circumstance, values and desires in infinite ways. Public policies can be incredibly beneficial to individuals and society but are never perfectly effective or without impacts. The choices we make involve trade-offs and we should be explicit about them.

The post makes the point that current US policy of subsidizing capital expenses of transit systems that put up matching dollars helps wealthier areas willing to tax themselves, at the expense of sending federal dollars to places where the demand (need) for transit exceeds the supply that can be provided with local dollars. It claims that the uneven spending results in inequitable outcomes and is thus unfair using a liberal definition of fair.
I have offered the opinion that the framing and language used to make the case here is hostile to conservative worldviews that fair means a system that rewards self-sufficiency and encourages assistance to be awarded competitively so those with better plans and greater local commitment to carry them out will win the resources for implementation. example…New York has inherited a great transit system, but Tampa has not. New York has solid plans for attracting substantive numbers of new transit trips and broad local support for them. Tampa does not. New York is rich, but Tampa is not. Where should the federal government send it’s money, to the rich inheritors, or to the poor city without a plan that can win local support? (libs lean to Tampa, Cons to NYC)

I have also stated my feeling that a policy of sending federal operating assistance to areas with less fiscal capacity may result in some negative consequences like: less expansion of fixed guideways, less maintenance of fleets and longer replacement cycles leading to decreased safety, a loss of local control over routing, fare policy and hours of operation and ultimately, less willingness to vote for local or federal transit subsidies because of the impression that money could come from or go somewhere else. I’m interested to know what criteria Yonah would support for a program of federal operating assitance and how it would address those things. I may be able to support shifting current federal operating support based on population size (less than 200k) to some alternate measure that better accounts for an area’s wealth or lack thereof. Whether conservative legislators could, I don’t know.

Advocating any position implies that policy supporters embrace both the positive and negative aspects, though we tend to sell the plus and ignore the minus. Negatives are fixated upon by the opposition, unless they are given a positive from thier own preferences to make a win-win situation possible (which still involves negatives but we focus less on them when we feel we are getting something).

So you want federal operating assistance for poorer metro areas. Got it. Now, what will you offer conservatives that will entice them to make a deal?

I agree with Eric Goodman that conservatives and liberals need to BOTH get on board if mass transit is to succeed. I also find references to “Tea Baggers” offensive and unhelpful and the assumption that the Blue States will succeed and the Red States fail to be preposterous.

Texas is doing well. California, my home state is doing poorly. The City of Stockton recently filed for bankruptcy and the State auditor says we’re $127 billion or so in the red, long term.

The liberal urban hipsters who make these comments would perhaps like to eradicate suburbs, single family homes, cars and freeways. But that would require a “final solution”, in effect cultural-political genocide. It won’t happen. America is about evenly divided between socio-political lifestyle poles as exemplified by our 50/50 presidential elections.

Here in California we’re struggling to build a nationally vital mass transit project, CA High Speed Rail. The funding is dicey, $9 billion authorized by 2008 Proposition 1A for a system that will cost $60 to $110 billion.

The Federal government won’t be able to make up the shortfall and private investors are so far absent. Governor Moonbeam Brown is in China this week trying to get investment, but w/o taxpayer guarantees… why would the Chinese pony up? They’re not stupid.

Recent CA polls show Californians are now AGAINST the HSR system they voted for in 2008. Nothing has been built yet and it might all evaporate because of the costs.

Well, David, I guess we’ll see. You are correct that Texas is doing well, at least in terms of a very bifurcated workforce. There are lots of medical specialists making millions a year treating the plutocrats of Latin America, tens of thousands of well-paid folks in the petroleum industry (used to be one myself; the I/T side, but still, they paid very well) and plenty of nicely compensated government workers at all levels.

There are three large army bases, the third largest home fleet naval base, a large Air Force base, and huge Department of Defense sites in and around San Antonio. NASA. NASA!!!

But then there are the millions of farmworkers and low-paid retail workers selling items to the medical specialists, technos and bureaucrats.

It also has the lowest health care coverage of its own< residents of any state in the country.

California has some of the same sorts of problems and some of the same strengths as does Texas. The biggest problem California faces is that most of the people in the world who know what it’s like would love to live there. As a result land prices are through the roof, and it’s almost impossible for young people to get a start on home ownership, unless they inherit one.

Then there’s the idiocy that took the nation’s premier public education system from first nearly to last place in only thirty years. Thank you very much, Mr. Jarvis!

Freemark’s argument will be highly persuasive to those who already believe that a country as huge and diverse as the US should aim for some kind of equity of outcomes.

Those who believe that local issues should be handled at the most local possible level — and that a diversity of outcomes is the inevitable result of a huge nation’s diversity of values — will find nothing here to convince them otherwise.

I don’t see any reason for this to be a left-right debate. There are excellent left-wing reasons for local control despite diversity of outcomes. Localization is a core ideology of much “sustainability” thinking, after all. And you don’t get true localization if you have a big interventionist central government demanding the same outcomes everywhere, as Freemark proposes.

I don’t have a view. I just disagree that this is a question resolvable by analysis. It’s about your philosophy of government.

I agree this is a discussion mostly about philosophy of government. However, nowhere in my post did I suggest that the “central government should demand the same outcomes everywhere.” I simply suggested that it was structurally impossible for poorer regions to achieve the improved (public transit) outcomes of their wealthier peers — because of their wealth differences. With a more fair distribution of funds, there is no reason to think that local governments couldn’t continue to make their own decisions about how to use those funds.

By arguing that the government is “big,” “interventionist,” and “demanding” by redistributing funds to even allow for the possibility for just outcomes, I believe you’ve taken a side.

I definitely think that the federal government should fund or at least help fund public transit. I recently wrote a blog post about the largest city without public transportation, Arlington, Texas. That city has two major sports venues (Cowboys Stadium and Rangers Ballpark) along with a 30,000-student public university, yet has no comprehensive form of public transportation whatsoever. The city is out of money from funding Cowboys Stadium, and the state won’t contribute anything. It seems like government intervention is the only thing that will help cities like these.


Why should Arlington Texas get any help?. It made its decisions to subsidize the Cowboys stadium and do without public transportation. It’s presumably run by adults who are elected in relatively non-corrupt open contests.

So the people of Arlington clearly want to subsidize the Cowboys (it’s been going on now for decades) and do without transit. We’ll all just bang our heads on a hard surface if we try to change them. They probably don’t want “the sort of people” who ride transit to live in their town. They wouldn’t be unique.

So eventually, when the demand for oil — and the ability to pay for it — in China swamps us all, they’ll be walking to neighborhood intersections at 5:30 in the morning to ride school buses to the edge of town where they can get some other city’s public transit.

Caveat voter.

I was under the impression that Arlington lacks public transit primarily because the residents there specifically do not want it (NIMBY/”keep ‘those people’ out”) reasons. Correct me if I’m wrong….

Leave a Reply