I know that the image of NJ drivers are BMW driving upper middle class yuppies. However, I have put in many miles in NJ and I can tell you that many parts of NJ have residents that are treading water in 1980s vintage automobiles. Warren County and large chunks of south Jersey have poverty problems and the land usage makes demand for NJT bus service sparse. These people are finished if fuel climbs.
I am not saying that raising tolls and the gas tax would be bad. I am simply saying that most of our transit advocates have transportation myopia that causes them to misunderstand their respective markets. Christie has done his best to protect the people that don't have much and he is doing it again.
I'm glad that you're not saying that raising tolls and the gas tax would be bad, Joel. (I'd be interested to know when and how you think they should be raised.) But you raise an important point, and I'm going to use it as a springboard to discuss a persistent problem in leftist transportation discussions: compassion.
I'm a compassionate kind of guy, and like many leftists, a lot of my politics are motivated by compassion. But a lot of leftists get paralyzed by their compassion - or maybe it offers them an excuse to avoid something they didn't particularly want to do anyway. They lose perspective, lose the ability to distinguish between different levels of pain, and between short-term disruptions and long-term inequities. For some reason it happens a lot when the topic of poor people who drive cars comes up.
Let me give an example, taking Joel's argument to its extreme: I live in Queens. I just heard about this great job in Chicago. Obviously, none of you are going to suggest that the government pay for my commute; I should either move to Chicago or get a job here.
But what if my Senators and the Senators from Illinois get a great idea for economic development: ten dollar flights to Midway! The federal government covers the difference between the ticket price and the airline's cost per passenger. I take the job in Chicago and start flying back and forth every weekday.
A year goes by and it's a hugely popular program. The city is talking about building a new airport in Brooklyn to accommodate the demand. The US has occupied Iran to ensure a steady supply of jet fuel. But it's straining the federal and state budgets, and the government is looking at either raising taxes or cutting other programs to pay for it.
Suppose that someone gets bold enough to suggest that the program could pay more of its own costs if the fare were raised to twenty dollars. But that would mean paying a hundred dollars a week for me. It would add up to almost five thousand dollars over a year! My job only pays thirty thousand, so it would be a devastating blow to me. How am I going to pay for the mortgage on my house, the payments on my car, and my kids' tuition at private school?
My point, to be clear, is that any subsidy will eventually have a significant number of people who are dependent on it. Ending a subsidy like this will disrupt people's lives, causing economic suffering. But just as we currently live fine without ten-dollar flights to Chicago, we would be able to live fine if they were given and taken away. And just as people were able to live fine in Warren County without cheap gas and free highways, some day they'll be able to do that again. Maybe all the people who moved to Warren County to take advantage of the cheap gas and free highways will have to move back to the cities, but they won't necessarily move back to the slum conditions that many of them left behind.
Making the transition is important. A lot of the pain associated with eliminating subsidies is transitional. This can be mitigated with proper support: a favorable job market, a good safety net. Interestingly, when there is enough support, transitions like this are often not even perceived as painful. It's another chapter in someone's life, even an adventure.
We also need to realize that subsidies can hurt as well as help, and compare the pain of getting rid of a subsidy against the pain of keeping it. Think about the budget mess and fuel shortages that ten dollar flights to Chicago would cause, let alone the suffering that it would cause if we occupied Iran. Similarly, it would probably cause a lot more suffering over the long term to continue subsidizing sprawl in Warren County than to stop.
Note the difference between my argument and a libertarian one. I am not saying that all subsidies are evil and must be eliminated. I am saying that they must be justified, and that those that can't be justified should be eliminated. I'm not saying that they should be justified with some kind of cold monetary cost-benefit analysis, but in terms of how they fit with our priorities, and how compassionate they are. I'm also not advocating pain and suffering, I'm advocating adequate transition support.
Again, I'm not trying to make Joel the bad guy here. I don't know what he thinks should be done in Warren County. But "These people are finished if fuel climbs," sounds like an argument for letting these subsidies persist indefinitely, which is not an answer.
The bottom line is that compassion doesn't mean never doing anything that could possibly make someone suffer somewhere. It means keeping perspective, and doing what's necessary to reduce the overall suffering. And that includes measures to mitigate transitional suffering.