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Lewyn Addresses America

A little politics, a little urbanism- I also blog 100 percent on urbanism at https://www.planetizen.com/user/63 and http://www.cnu.org/blog/194

The WSJ, which despite its location is basically anti-city and pro-sprawl, wrote an editorial parroting the same pro-sprawl arguments that the road lobby was making in the mid-90s.  Below is its editorial, with my comments in bold.

Nothing shows off the worst of Congress like a highway bill. And this year’s scramble for cash is worse than ever because the 18.4 cent a gallon gasoline tax will raise $70 billion less than the $263 billion Congress wants to spend over the next five years. Let the mayhem ensue.

The Senate has passed a two-year $109 billion bill sponsored by Barbara Boxer of California that bails out the highway trust fund with general revenues, including some $12 billion for such nonessentials as the National Endowment for the Oceans and the Land and Water Conservation Fund. The bill requires little or no reform. The prevailing Senate view is the more concrete that gets poured, the more jobs back home. So more “shovel-ready” nonstimulus.

House Republicans oppose the Senate version amid a $1.3 trillion deficit and have their own bill to give states more flexibility—though still not enough—on how to spend transportation dollars. Congress had to pass a temporary 90-day extension of highway funding through June 30 because the two sides can’t agree.

What’s missing is any new thinking.

I don’t think “more money for highways, nothing for transit” counts as new thinking- it was tried for most of the 20th century.

Clear evidence of inefficient transportation spending comes from a new Treasury study estimating that traffic gridlock costs motorists more than $100 billion a year in delays and wasted gas.

Confuses correlation with causation.  You could just as easily argue that because big-city traffic congestion has decreased in recent years, transportation spending is wondrously efficient.

In cities like Los Angeles, commuters waste the equivalent of two extra weeks every year in traffic jams. This congestion could be alleviated by building more highway lanes where they are most needed and using market-based pricing—such as tolls—for using roads during peak travel times.

Yep, just build more lanes so the real estate lobby can build more subdivisions 40 miles out.  When all those people move to those subdivisions, aren’t the areas around those subdivisions going to get more congested rather than less?

That makes too much sense for Washington. In a typical year only about 65 cents of every gas tax dollar is spent on roads and highways. The rest is intercepted by the public transit lobby and Congressional earmarkers.

Um, the earmarks can go to highways too.  Moreover, this statistic is highly questionable to say the least.

Then there are the union wages that pad the cost of all federal projects. The New York Times reported in 2010 that 8,074 Metropolitan Transportation Authority employees made $100,000 or more in 2009 even as the system loses money.

Transit is the biggest drain. Only in New York, San Francisco and Washington, D.C. does public transit account for more than 5% of commuter trips. Even with a recent 2.3% gain in bus and rail use due to high gas prices, public transit still accounts for a mere 2% of all inner-city trips and closer to 1% outside of New York.

Well, that wouldn’t have anything to do with the fact that government has spent the past century following the WSJ’s recommendations, would it?  For most of the 20th century, government spent money on roads while transit was a private industry that was being drowned by government support for the competition.  In the 1950s and 1960s, government took over transit but effectively starved it by (a) giving more money to roads and (b) using that road spending to encourage development in places without any transit (For a long discussion of the point see here).

Since 1982 government mass-transit subsidies have totaled $750 billion (in today’s dollars),

Which means road subsidies are at least $3 trillion, since federal road spending usually exceeds transit spending by at least a 4-1 margin.

yet the share of travelers using transit has fallen by nearly one-third, according to Heritage Foundation transportation expert Wendell Cox.

If you google “Wendell Cox” you will know that he has at least as much of an ax to grind as I do (and I don’t consider myself impartial). Furthermore, transit has actually gained ridership over the past 15 years; ridership has increased by about 25 percent.  And if gas prices continue to increase, ridership should increase still more in the absence of government sabotage.

Federal data indicate that in 2010 in most major cities more people walked to work or telecommuted than used public transit.

Brookings Institution economist Cliff Winston finds that “the cost of building rail systems is notorious for exceeding expectations, while ridership levels tend to be much lower than anticipated.” He calculates that the only major U.S. rail system in which the benefits outweigh the government subsidies is San Francisco’s BART, and no others are close to break-even.

Anybody who doesn’t count think the New York subway qualifies as cost-effective is not really a credible authority.

One reason roads are shortchanged is that liberals believe too many Americans drive cars. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has been pushing a strange “livability” agenda, which he defines as “being able to take your kids to school, go to work, see a doctor, drop by the grocery or post office, go out to dinner and a movie, and play with your kids in a park, all without having to get in your car.” This is the mind of the central planner at work, imagining that Americans all want to live in his little utopia.

So its “strange” to want to be able to walk to stuff?  Really?  Why is it that there are now apartment buildings near Wall Street?  Because some people want to walk to their Wall Street jobs, that’s why?  I could understand why people living in rural West Virginia might find walkability odd, but I really find it hard to believe anyone in downtown New York could write this with a straight face.  (Then again, maybe the Journal just has its editorials written somewhere else these days…)

The current scheme also creates giant inequities. Politically powerful cities get a big chunk of the money, while many Western and Southern states get less back than they pay in. But why should people in Akron, Ohio or Casper, Wyoming have to pay gas taxes to finance the New York subway or light rail in Denver? One reason there is so much overspending on inefficient urban transit is that federal matching dollars require residents in other states to foot up to half the bill.

In fact, the big winners from Big Government are rural southern and western states.  Higher-wage northern states get hit with higher income taxes and thus pay more.

The best solution would be to return all the gas tax money to the states, roughly in proportion to the money each pays in. This would allow states and localities to determine which roads and transit projects they really need—and are willing to pay for. California could decide for itself if it wants more roads, whether it can afford high-speed rail, and whether it wants to use congestion-pricing on crowded roads. The House Transportation Committee has found that getting a permit for a new road costs twice as much, and takes three times as long, when federal money is included than when financed with private or local dollars.

Less federal control would also allow states to lure billions of dollars of private financing for new roads, which experts like Mr. Winston believe is the next big thing in transportation financing but is now generally prohibited. One of the worst features of Ms. Boxer’s Senate bill is that she would exacerbate the funding shortage by adding new penalties if states leverage private dollars to build new toll roads and bridges.

The Senate’s highway-fund bailout will only perpetuate the spending misallocation that has contributed to traffic nightmares. It will also run up the deficit. If Congress really wants to enhance the livability of cities and suburbs, it will pass a highway bill that builds more roads.

The best solution would be to return all the gas tax money to the states, roughly in proportion to the money each pays in. This would allow states and localities to determine which roads and transit projects they really need—and are willing to pay for. California could decide for itself if it wants more roads, whether it can afford high-speed rail, and whether it wants to use congestion-pricing on crowded roads. The House Transportation Committee has found that getting a permit for a new road costs twice as much, and takes three times as long, when federal money is included than when financed with private or local dollars.

Brookings Institution economist Cliff Winston finds that “the cost of building rail systems is notorious for exceeding expectations, while ridership levels tend to be much lower than anticipated.” He calculates that the only major U.S. rail system in which the benefits outweigh the government subsidies is San Francisco’s BART, and no others are close to break-even.

One reason roads are shortchanged is that liberals believe too many Americans drive cars. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has been pushing a strange “livability” agenda, which he defines as “being able to take your kids to school, go to work, see a doctor, drop by the grocery or post office, go out to dinner and a movie, and play with your kids in a park, all without having to get in your car.” This is the mind of the central planner at work, imagining that Americans all want to live in his little utopia.

The current scheme also creates giant inequities. Politically powerful cities get a big chunk of the money, while many Western and Southern states get less back than they pay in. But why should people in Akron, Ohio or Casper, Wyoming have to pay gas taxes to finance the New York subway or light rail in Denver? One reason there is so much overspending on inefficient urban transit is that federal matching dollars require residents in other states to foot up to half the bill.

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