Looking at census data for Calgary, the Antiplanner was amused to note that Statistics Canada says there are two ways to get to work: either by automobile or by “sustainable transportation,” meaning transit, walking, or cycling. But what makes transit more “sustainable” than the automobile?
The New York Times recognizes that, even in New York City, transit is perpetually hungry for subsidies. The state’s proposed solutions are to toll the remaining free bridges into Manhattan and new payroll taxes, all to subsidize so-called “sustainable” transportation. But why should drivers pay to subsidize transit and why should the state pay to subsidize Manhattan’s unsustainable densities?
Of course, someone always brings up the fact that highways are subsidized too. A recent op ed in the Boulder Daily Camera claims that Colorado highway user fees only cover 20 percent of the cost of Colorado’s roads. However, the writer’s arithmetic was faulty, partly because he based it on a long-range transportation plan instead of on actual spending and partly because he misread that plan.
In reality, tables from Highway Statistics indicate that Colorado drivers paid just over $2.02 billion in gas taxes, motor vehicle registration fees, and other user fees in 2006, while state and local governments spent $2.37 billion on highways. This means highway users covered 85 percent of the cost of building, operating, and maintaining Colorado roads and streets, a sharp contrast from Denver’s transit riders, whose fares covered only 13 percent of the costs of transit (the op ed writer says 20, but he is only counting operating costs).
To make these calculations, the Antiplanner used tables FE-9, SDF and LDF to see how much highway users paid to federal, state, and local governments; and tables SF-2
LF-2 to see how much state and local governments spent on roads.
In case you want to calculate this for some other state, I’ve transferred the relevant columns of data from these tables to one master spreadsheet. Column O of this table shows the net subsidy (in thousands) in each state. Column P divides that subsidy by passenger miles to get the subsidy per passenger mile in pennies. Except in Alaska, these subsidies are typically about a penny. The subsidies are shown by minus signs; in a handful of states — Connecticut, Kentucky, Maryland, Oklahoma, and Tennessee, the sign is positive, meaning that highways cost less than users pay.
The table also shows in columns F, G, and H that some user fees are diverted to transit and other purposes. But they should still be credited to highway users. After all, in the unlikely event that New York’s MTA or Denver’s RTD earned surplus transit fares, if they spent those fares subsidizing highways, no one would say that they were not still transit user fees.
Calculated this way, highway subsidies totaled to $29.7 billion in 2006. Meanwhile, transit subsidies (capital plus operating costs minus fares) totaled to $30.1 billion (see cell J1411), even though transit carried only about 1 percent as many passenger miles (49.5 billion transit vs. 4.9 trillion highway). The highways also carried 1.3 trillion ton-miles of freight.
I’d like to end all of the subsidies, but in the meantime, which seems more sustainable: a system that requires subsidies averaging 0.6 cents per passenger mile, or one requiring subsidies of 61 cents a passenger mile? The American transit industry only works as long as most people don’t use it and they continue to subsidize the few who do. That’s not a sustainable model.