Friday, February 13, 2009

The goals of transit funding, and its obstacles

Why do we subsidize transit? There are two main goals, which we can broadly group under social and environmental. We want to make sure that everyone who has a legitimate need to get somewhere can do so. We also want to get people out of their cars, thereby increasing efficiency, decreasing carnage and pollution, and improving society.

I don't think that anyone is opposed to these goals on principle. The opposition comes from people who disagree about how effective transit subsidies would be in accomplishing these goals, and from people who have other goals that they place a higher priority on.

For example, deficit hawks may place a higher priority on balancing the budget than on providing transportation for all. Back-to-the-land hippies may place close contact with nature over transportation efficiencies. Pro-business people may put economic prosperity ahead of reducing pollution. Libertarians may put "the freedom that cars bring us" ahead of the social benefits that come from pedestrian-oriented neighborhoods.

I believe that many of these objections are reasonable, but misguided. Others are half-truths or even outright lies invented to cover self-interest. Regardless, to the extent that transit is a priority for us, we want to see it overcome these objections. Now more than ever, transit is in competition with private cars, and in order to compete effectively it needs to be dependable. In order to be dependable, it needs a stable funding source.

Probably the worst way to fund transit is through general tax dollars that come from sales or income taxes. In that kind of budgetary free-for-all, there are lots of people who can think of better uses for money than transit. Between the needs of dying orphan babies and the demands of powerful elites, it's almost guaranteed to get short-changed.

It might be a good idea to develop some political power for transit to use in various fights, but financial independence is an easier way to build dependable service. In a later post, I'll discuss some possible ways to achieve this.


AlexB said...

We don't subsidize transit for social or environmental reasons, although the subsidies certainly help these issues. We subsidize transit for reasons of basic economics. People don't enjoy all the benefits of transit (efficient land use, energy use, lower overall transportation costs, etc) when they pay their fare. Also, people don't feel all the negative effects of driving (pollution, car wrecks, drunk driving, parking lots, wars in the middle east, etc.) as they are driving. We subsidize mass transit so we can enjoy all of its benefits that no one would pay for otherwise. We tax/toll auto use to limit all its side effects.

Transit vs Autos is one of the ultimate examples of the "Tragedy of the Commons" where everyone acting in their own immediate self-interest destroys what's good for everyone.

The fact that the discussion of public transit always focuses so strongly on social and environmental benefits is counterproductive to the real reasons for supporting mass transit and flames the fires of the "culture wars." Living in New York makes Republicans seem distant and strange, but they don't care about hippies or poor people and will never be convinced by their arguments or arguments on their behalf. If you discuss transportation policy on these terms, most Republicans will use it as a way to ridicule you. There is nothing more humorous to a Republican than the concept of "social justice." However, anyone can be convinced to subsidize mass transit if you tell them they can save hundreds of dollars a month.

Cap'n Transit said...

Alex, I talk about the "basic economics" of efficiency, pollution and carnage. I group them under the heading of environmental goals, because I consider efficient use of resources, reduced pollution and road safety to be environmental issues.

I'll keep your suggestions in mind the next time I talk to Republicans, but as you can see from the header, this blog is primarily aimed at people who agree that cars are bad, transit is good, and walking and cycling are good. I don't see any need to censor myself when I'm among friends. If the Republicans want to make fun of me, let them go right ahead.

AlexB said...

When I wrote, "If you discuss transportation policy on these terms, most Republicans will use it as a way to ridicule you," I was not referring to you in particular, but any proponent of mass transit. By Republicans, I was referring to the pro-business people and libertarians you mentioned in the original post. Having been raised in the south, I was probably also remembering my own failed attempts to explain these issues to conservatives.

The point I was trying to make is that no one feels all the social and environmental results of mass transit as they are swiping their card. If they did, we probably wouldn't need to provide extra funding. Imagine if the air got cleaner, low density suburban houses turned into vibrant mixed use developments, and fewer people died in car accidents the moment you stepped onto the train. Everyone would ride the train and ditch their cars immediately. It would be a no-brainer and not require subsidies at all.

The "basic economics" I was talking about is this inherent delay that causes people to drive and live in the suburbs in the first place. We fund transit and tax cars to fix this delay. In my opinion, discussions of transportation policy should revolve primarily around how to address this disconnect.

Because of that, I completely agree with you that the funding for transit should not come from a general fund. Along this line of thinking, we should impose taxes on VMT, gasoline, and an inverse property tax on low density development. (Lower taxes on high density/higher taxes on low density.) All the money should go into subsidizing mass transit and the other infrastructure needed for higher density communities. (While this would be economically "clean," it would bring up MAJOR issues of fairness...)