Monday, July 20, 2009

Transportation fantasyland in DC

I want to pass along this Wall Street Journal op-ed on some of crazy transportation goals starting to get traction in Congress. The main excerpt:

Messrs. Rockefeller and Lautenberg aim to "reduce per capita motor vehicle miles traveled on an annual basis." Mr. Oberstar wants to establish a federal "Office of Livability" to ensure that "States and metropolitan areas achieve progress towards national transportation-related greenhouse gas emissions reduction goals."

What does this mean? Most travel is not for its own sake. So reducing the total miles traveled -- whether the length or number of trips -- means people would have to reduce the activities they want and need to do. People would be "coerced," in effect, to live in less desirable places or work in less desirable jobs; shop in fewer and closer stores; see their doctor less frequently; visit fewer family members and friends.

There are three likely ways this could work. The cost of travel could be increased by raising the prices of vehicles or fuel; travel time could be increased by not expanding the highway system; or superior alternatives to the private car could be developed. The most likely way to increase the cost of travel would be by increasing fuel taxes perhaps to as much as $4 per gallon, as some have suggested.

Allowing congestion to increase travel times would be politically easier. In the name of "multimodal planning," for example, road-use taxes could be diverted, as Messrs. Rockefeller and Lautenberg suggest, to "increase the total usage of public transportation." But public transportation (where it's available) typically takes twice as long as automobile travel, so it's not practical for many Americans.

Moreover, public transportation (passenger rail services, subways, buses, light rail) requires heavy subsidies, while roads mostly pay for themselves through fuel taxes. Our roads would be even more self-sustaining if 20% of the federal fuel tax were not already diverted to public transit from the federal Highway Trust Fund. Messrs. Rockefeller, Lautenberg and Oberstar want to grab even more money from the trust fund.

Americans have always valued their independence and mobility. One way to reassert their rights would be to abolish the misnamed Highway Trust Fund, which finances highway construction and maintenance. Let the states decide what roads they need and how to finance them. The present system expires on Sept. 30 unless Congress reauthorizes it. Let it die.

Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R., Texas) has in this regard introduced the "Highway Fairness and Reform Act of 2009," which would explicitly allow states to opt out of the federal financing system. A companion bill has been introduced in the House.

If a significant number of states opted out of the federal system, it would collapse and responsibility for roads would revert to the states. The vast majority of road users would benefit from such a change. And, if "livability" standards were deemed desirable, local preferences would determine them, rather than federal "greenhouse gas emissions reduction goals."

You go, Kay. As I've said before, the personal vehicle is now a permanent part of our culture, but the engine technology will evolve to meet climate or energy needs. Transit is not a realistic answer for the vast majority. But beyond that, the Feds really shouldn't be in the transportation game any more. They built the interstate system - now leave local transportation decisions and funding to the states. That includes high-speed rail, which can be done by consortiums of states if they really want it. But, as Reason recently pointed out, inter-city buses make far more sense:

As I've said many times before, I am a life-long rail fan who has ridden trains on four continents. As a transportation professional, however, it's incumbent on me to advocate meeting transportation needs in cost-effective ways. Before we spent tens of billions of taxpayer dollars on inter-city passenger rail, I think it behooves us to take a closer look at the potential of inter-city bus travel.

...

Besides considerably lower fares than Amtrak, much wider geographic coverage, and a much smaller carbon footprint, inter-city bus service has something else going for it: negligible cost to taxpayers. The Nathan study puts the federal subsidy per passenger mile (averaged over the 10 years from 1996 to 2005) at 0.1 cents. Amtrak's figure is 19.2 cents. Those numbers are consistent with federal subsidy figures in the 2005 U.S. DOT Bureau of Transportation Statistics report "Federal Subsidies to Passenger Transportation."

I rest my case.

He even mentioned some of the luxury bus services with wifi popping up around the country - especially in the northeast - that appeal to a different demographic from Greyhound. How come we can't get one of those for the Texas Triangle?

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6 Comments:

At 5:28 PM, July 20, 2009, Anonymous kjb434 said...

The role of the federal government for transportation should be to study interstate corridors for road and rail (freight and passenger considerations).

It's makes no sense for all of us send out money there for them send it back to us. It will inherently get wasted. Why is the extra step of sending it to the Feds is needed other than for the Feds to wrestle some power from the states.

 
At 5:59 PM, July 20, 2009, Anonymous Anonymous said...

No comment on the highway funding stuff, but I'm going to have to assume that your praise of this op ed doesn't extend to its complaint about the possibility of higher gas taxes. You do agree that it's best to price externalities like pollution or congestion instead of pretending they're "free", don't you?

jt

 
At 6:02 PM, July 20, 2009, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Yes. But if the goal is carbon reduction, then cap-and-trade over all carbon - or a tax on all carbon - makes more sense than a specific tax targeted only at gasoline.

 
At 10:31 PM, July 20, 2009, Blogger Michael said...

Why stop at the state level? Why not let Houston keep all of its transportation dollars except those specifically dedicated towards intercity or interstate travel that benefits (ie connects directly with) the city of Houston? I'm guessing we'd have more mass transit, not less, under such a system, but I'd be all for it! Get rid of the feds and TxDOT, and let Houston spend its own money on its own projects.

 
At 11:31 PM, July 20, 2009, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I don't think we'll see any serious action on transportation issues in congress this year due to the difficult and complex legislative issues that are higher priority - health care, cap and trade, immigration, financial reform, and budgetary issues.

We'll see short-term extensions of the current trust fund, and perhaps numerous extensions into 2011.

Nevertheless, these early themes are cause for concern. I had some hope that big-spending Democrats would step up to the plate and adequately fund highways, but if these folks have their way, traditional highway revenue sources will be tapped for non-highway purposes.

 
At 7:53 AM, July 21, 2009, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Michael: If the feds leave it to states, individual states can choose how to allocate locally, including delegating authority to local authorities like HGAC, Metro, Harris County, or others. I'm not sure it's likely to happen, but it's possible. Certainly the Houston district of TXDoT would fight to get what it can, with input from all the local authorities inside its region.

 

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