Who’s Crazy?

The Antiplanner’s faithful ally, Robert Poole of the Reason Foundation, told a Congressional committee last week that highway user fees should be dedicated to highways and any federal subsidies to transit should come out of other funds. Unfortunately, we have become so used to the idea that everything should be subsidized that advocates of transit subsidies could get away with calling Poole’s ideas “crazy talk.”

Why is it crazy to think that user fees should go to the infrastructure that the users are using? I suppose the transit lobby thinks that some of the money people pay for clothes at Wal-Mart and J.C. Penneys should go to subsidize Paris fashions. Or that some of the money people spend on ordinary groceries should subsidize gourmet restaurants.

After all, transit–at least the kind of transit these people want–is a luxury, not a necessity. They want expensive transit systems aimed at getting relatively well-off people out of their cars. To pay for these systems, they want to tax the more-than-92 percent of mostly ordinary people who have and use cars as their primary modes of transportation.

Their justification for taking money from auto users to subsidize transit is that transit is somehow more moral and environmentally friendly than driving. But there is nothing particularly moral about transit, which–being slow and expensive–greatly curtails people’s ability to reach jobs and other destinations. It is especially immoral if it has to funded out of regressive taxes that are spent mainly for the well-to-do.

Nor is transit environmentally sound. In 2010, the last year for which we have data available, the average car on the road used 3,447 BTUs per passenger mile (see table 2-13). Meanwhile, in that same year, transit used 3,443 BTUs per passenger mile (see cell U1443), a savings of a trivial 4 BTUs per passenger mile.

Light trucks are less fuel-efficient than cars, but both cars and light trucks are getting fuel-efficient faster than transit. The average car today is about 40 percent more fuel-efficient than the average car 40 years ago. The average transit bus or train is actually less fuel-efficient than the average 40 years ago (see tables 2-13 and 2-14). In the next 12 to 15 years, the average personal vehicle on the road will use one-third less fuel per mile than the average today. Transit is not likely to improve anywhere near as much.

Anyone who downloads the spreadsheet that is the last link above will note that rail transit tends to be more fuel-efficient than bus transit. But few rail systems operate in isolation; they need to be supported by buses. Scroll down that spreadsheet to rows 1445 to 1805 and you’ll find that transit in all but a handful of urban areas–most notably New York, Atlanta, and San Francisco–uses more than 3,000 BTUs per passenger mile, which means those in the rest of the country aren’t significantly better–and often significantly worse–than cars.

Moreover, when all life-cycle costs are considered, rail is considerably less efficient than it looks when just considering the energy costs of operations. As two UC Berkeley researchers discovered, the life-cycle costs of rail transit are about 2.5 times the operating costs, while the life-cycle costs of driving are only about 1.6 times the operating costs. This makes even the most energy-efficient transit systems no more efficient than driving in the long run.

So transit isn’t more moral or environmentally friendly than driving. In fact, it is less so. The truly crazy people are the ones who think that luxury transit for the lucky–and relatively wealthy–few should be subsidized by the many.

The big problem with federal transportation funding is that Congress spends about $8 billion more on highways and transit than is collected each year in highway user fees. Instead of cutting spending, Congress has responded by supplementing the highway trust fund (really, the highway-and-transit mistrust fund) with about $41 billion since 2008.

Some people argue that this represents a subsidy to highways. But, by an amazing coincidence, the share of highway user fees that is going for transit is roughly $8 billion a year. Poole’s idea would reduce highway spending to be no more than highway revenues and then force Congress to really think if it wants to subsidize luxury transit for a handful of people by taxing everyone else.

By the way, here’s another crazy thing: the California High-Speed Rail Authority recently opened bids for construction of the first segment from Madera to Fresno. The low bid came from a consortium of three companies: Tutor-Perini; Zachry Construction; and Parsons.

Some people are crying foul, however, because these three companies were also “deemed to be the least skilled” of the five bidders, and under the Authority’s rules, only the three most-skilled bidders were to be considered. In what may not be a coincidence, even more people are crying foul because the lead company, Tutor-Perini, just happens to be largely owned by Senator Diane Feinstein’s husband. This is crony capitalism at its best: wild overspending on a project that benefits few but hugely profits a relative of a major political backer of that project.

Update: Senator Feinstein says her husband no longer has any financial ties with Tutor Perini. It isn’t clear how she knows that is true, since a spokesman with her office says she “is not involved with and does not discuss any of her husband’s business decisions with him.”

Regardless of who owns Tutor Perini, why aren’t the liberals who called Bob Poole “crazy” calling the high-speed rail scheme crazy? I remember when progressives were on the side of the poor and against the wealthy owners of large corporations. Now it is the the fiscal conservatives who hold that view and get denounced for it by the self-described progressives. That’s the reality of the crazy world we live in.


14 thoughts on “Who’s Crazy?

  1. LazyReader

    Because politicians who sign these deals don’t have to worry about the repercussions after they’ve left office. They don’t know how to read a balance sheet. We have four major transportation trust funds: the Aviation Trust Fund, the Highway Trust Fund, the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund, and the Inland Waterways Trust Fund. Each is the recipient of mode-specific user taxes which are supposed to be used only for investment in that mode of infrastructure. While all four trust funds make investments in their forms of infrastructure, all share a set of problems, leading to far less than good results in maximizing productive investment i.e., getting the most bang for the buck. Because the user taxes are legally taxes, Congress is reluctant to increase their rates, even though in many cases more investment is needed. Politicians can reroute money virtually anywhere they want if it’s a tax. If it’s a user fee it stays in the function it was meant for. It’s funny, in the private sector if you find a way to cut costs without cutting corners you’re a hero. In politics, if you find a legitimate means to cut costs you’re a [insert pejorative].

    The taxes even if raised can often be uneven in distribution. Each of these trust funds involves significant redistribution from one part of the country to another, or from one subset of users to another creating winners and losers and often leading to investments whose benefits are less than their costs. Federal involvement significantly increases the cost of projects that use federal dollars, due to numerous regulatory requirements, such as Davis-Bacon and Buy America. The result is bureaucratic inefficiency and picking and choosing the labor to do the work (if a politician has a friend in the construction industry or got elected by constituents involved in the construction industry namely highways or concrete makers, asphalt makers, labor unions, etc.)

    Another problem is, in these programs on new capacity tends to bias state and local decisions against maintenance and in favor of capital-intensive projects using what is perceived as “free federal money.” Boston’s Big Dig is one of the greatest examples. While I’m sure lots of Bostonians are happy the hideous overhead freeway is gone in favor of avenues and parks, it did little to reduce congestion. And the work was so sloppy a portion of it collapsed, killing a woman and companies responsible for the materials were later investigated for substandard materials.

    Just remember, politicians are hypocrites. The ones who preach environmental responsibility may have obtained their wealth from questionable industries. The lawmakers who preach loudest about chastity/waiting until marriage to have kids are often the ones who later get caught using prostitutes or cheating on their wives. Women half their age or underage. The creed may switch to junk food but the hypocrisy is still there. Mayor Bloomberg has banned trans fats, pressure companies to cut salt use, and mandated public calorie counts at restaurants, restricting soft drink size. But the harder he presses, the more he’s outed. Caught salting pizza and bagels. He drinks three or four cups of coffee a day and has smoked for years, even has his own personal salt shaker. Mike Crapo, senator caught driving under the influence despite being a Mormon where the consumption of alcohol is taboo. John Ensign proposed banning same sex marriage being caught in a fling with a staff member. Charlie Rangel, representative was censured for failure to pay federal taxes while accosting other for not paying federal taxes. Paul Ryan slammed Obama’s stimulus spending; didn’t stop him from earmarking over $700,000 for a transit center in his hometown. Michele Bachmann personally benefits from agricultural subsidies for land she doesn’t even farm. Former Vice President Al Gore lives in a home that consumes 20x more power (and arriving in a limousine rather than taking the transit he advocates other people use) than the average American while telling other American’s that they must make drastic reductions in their personal consumption for the sake of the planet. Larry Craig despite being an opponent to same-sex marriage later caught soliciting in a airport men’s room. Eliot Spitzer caught using the services of a $1,000 an hour prostitute. Despite being a firm pro-lifer, Tennessee Representative Scott DesJarlais was revealed to have had sex with patients when he was a practicing physician and urged one girl to get an abortion afterwards and later urged his then wife to do the same. Howard Metzenbaum, the late senator had no objections to passing an array of taxes including the “Death tax” and “Estate Tax”; after retiring from the Senate and 6 months prior to his death, he moved from Ohio to Florida; Why? The same reason Lebron James moved to Florida. Because Florida doesn’t have estate, death, or state income taxes. John Kerry of Massachusetts owns a 76 foot sailing yacht, nothing wrong with that, he harbors the boat in Rhode Island instead of Massachusetts; to avoid the fees and tariffs of owning/operating a boat in Massachusetts saving $500,000 in sales tax and $76,000 a year for the $7 million waterborne indulgence. That’s what made Rhode Island sailing and yacht capital of America.

  2. OFP2003

    Well, I ride on rail transit (in a dirty, smelly, dark, sometimes dangerous, underground) and see a whole lot of people that are not wealthy riding it. I mean, a whole lot. Since it costs $12/day to ride it the way I do, all of these people (including school children) have to have some sort of subsidy to ride it.

    But here’s what’s bothering me: Don’t “Urbanists” include in the arsenal of arguments against super highways a claim that the controlled access of the highways and the centralized concentration of traffic are deleterious to the urban fabric? How are rail transit systems any different? They are controlled access arteries that rip-asunder the urban fabric if above ground, but create a miserable “pedestrian experience” when underground…

  3. LazyReader

    There are no bigger hypocrites than…celebrities. The Hollywood elites whine about the tax breaks for Big Oil and laud Hugo Chavez for nationalizing the oil industry in Venezuela, then distributing the profits to the poor. How ’bout this – we nationalize the film industry and distribute those profits to the poor. Are you paying attention Sean Penn? Oliver Stone? You two who think Chavez was such a hero. Answer me this – how is it that he died a billionaire? And how is it that you think the oil companies are crooks for making a profit but have no problem making movies that the average working family has to spend a day’s wages to buy a ticket and popcorn? Hollywood liberal hypocrites. But you’ve got the gall to ask for more tax breaks. Go figure. That’s they they’re shooting in Vancouver and New Mexico.

  4. C. P. Zilliacus

    LazyReader wrote:

    The ones who preach environmental responsibility may have obtained their wealth from questionable industries.

    My office is not that far from Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C.

    Assuming for a moment that driving is worse for the environment than taking mass transit (in spite of what Randal has written above), it’s interesting to note that the offices of Congress are served by two close-by Metrorail stations (Union Station and Capitol South) and are served by numerous bus lines. But curiously, there are always many, many cars parked on the D.C. streets that are maintained by the Architect of the Capitol (ordinary citizens cannot park along these streets, none of which have meters, because a permit from the AOC is required, and cars parked in those spaces are frequently checked by the U.S. Capitol Police), and the various parking lots and garages run by the AOC are always full on working days. Why would that be?

  5. LazyReader

    D.C. was designed by Pierre (Peter) Charles L’Enfant, a French born, American Architect. He designed Washington to mimic Paris with wide avenues and low buildings. Ironically even Paris today is an automotive haven. In the 60’s Paris prohibited many major streets and avenues from parking along the streets. And when they did that the retail and commerce along it all but died. It wasn’t until Georges Pompidou ordered the parking restored that the retail returned. It helps to have cars as a layer of dead metal to protect pedestrians against the incoming and outgoing traffic flows. So cities in a space crunch like Paris need parking, they build multi story garages. To which they can carry out more than one function.


    (use arrow keys to view slideshow)

    Parking garages are best described as urban visual blights, the after thought of master planners after the builder is finished. Underground parking was a novelty as early as the 1960’s. Some cities prohibit them to protect the foundations of neighboring buildings thus no choice but to build above ground. That doesn’t mean they must be visual blights.


  6. English Major

    Enjoyed the article & comments. To follow up on the parking garage comment, can anyone explain the intense fear of PARKING LOTS scary scary PARKING LOTS among the New Urbanists?

    I was shopping at my locally owned store, and Ireflected that parking lots can add some restful,
    negative (i.e. visually quiet) space. In Portland, we put trees in the parking lots. We should making parking lots greener and find cool ways to store the cars of the future, which will probably be smaller and cleaner. Perhaps cheaper

  7. LazyReader

    @English Major: The problem with parking lots typically in any city is that….They’re typically unattractive. They’re the perfect place to get mugged or raped at night without proper lighting or secure presence, they’re not social gathering places per se so they’re empty and deserted which makes them the perfect place to sell drugs, solicit prostitutes, or selling drugs to solicited prostitutes. The New Urbanists host a distaste for parking lots given the land they consume. The New Urbanist philosophy suggests having a strong emphasis on the community. This means maintaining connections between people where neighborhoods and city blocks are connected to parks, open spaces and the classical community gathering centers like a plaza or neighborhood square or as they call them in Europe the “Piazza”.


    Even small squares are added, you can park on the perimeter. You have a square or park surrounded by development but a place of tranquility in the center where you can park, shop, relax.

    Parking lots tend to be sources of water pollution because of their extensive impervious surfaces. Virtually all of the rain (minus evaporation) that falls becomes urban runoff and carries with it the garbage, litter, dog crap, spilled gasoline, motor oil. And the lots usually need more land area than the corresponding buildings for offices or shops if most employees and visitors arrive by car. According to one study performed by the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, University of California, Berkeley; there are 3.4 parking spaces for every registered vehicle in America; that’s over 800 million parking spaces (average 270 sq ft per space not including the space taken up to drive through it) covering an area over 7,000-8,000 square miles, 3 times larger than Everglades National Park. This means covering large areas with asphalt which absorb a lot of heat. The parking lot is essentially a desert. We need to reinvent it without worrying about destroying peoples “urban fabric”


  8. Dan

    I agree that all the subsidies that support auto-centric transport should be ended as well. Let’s start with oil and have gas be priced properly, ~8.00/gal. We’ll see how good single-occupancy vehicle transport looks then.


  9. Dave Brough

    What about getting to ground zero and removing the need for parking garages in the first place – and toss in half the streets to boot? The ‘how’ lies in combining robocar with elevated guideway. You take robocar to the nearest guideway. You guideway at 80 mph to the closest exit. You exit and robocar takes you to where you’re going. You exit and robocar either goes and parks itself or turns into a taxi and earns you coin while you earn coin. You not only save having to build expensive and ugly parking garages, you help save the planet.
    How simple was that?

  10. Sandy Teal

    Maybe this crowd is to close to the issue. There is a general assumption in the public that rail, bus, and subway transit releaves congestion, so that even people who don’t want to take the transit should fund it because it will make their auto commute easier. The pro-transit advocates know that is the general assumption, so they play on it even though it has been disproven.

    The best argument the Antiplanner has made is that these alternate transportation modes generally do not make traffic better. If he would just make that more, it would make a lot of impact.

  11. English Major

    I see the problems with parking lots. It isn’t rocket science to use plants and pavers. Toilets are ugly too- but we need them.

    Bear with me, I live in Portland where the city has decided that it should discourage the private ownership of motorized vehicles. Of course the city cannot influence lifestyle choices, so we end up with a mess.

    Sounds kind commie when I put it that way- but it is true. Here in the People’s Republic of Portland we
    have city planners who think that they have the right to make everyone dependent on a bike, Avis, or the city for transport. That is scary to me.

    Of course, now that conservatives have labelled everyone a commie, when we have a real issue, I can’t
    compare the city planners to communists.

    Wish me well as I try and survive Portland’s “Great Leap Forward.”

  12. MJ

    I agree that all the subsidies that support auto-centric transport should be ended as well. Let’s start with oil and have gas be priced properly, ~8.00/gal. We’ll see how good single-occupancy vehicle transport looks then.

    Okay, I’ll bite. Where does the estimate of a “proper” price of gasoline being $8.00/gal come from? I’ll kindly ask you in advance not to link to a Streetsblog post as “evidence”.

  13. the highwayman

    You’re not crazy, you’re evil.

    Roads have been around for thousands of years, long before there were automobiles, besides roads are mostly funded from property taxes.

  14. Sandy Teal

    Why should automobiles pay for residential roads? Why shouldn’t schools pay for them? Why shouldn’t water and sewer and electric and cable and gas utilities pay for them? Why shouldn’t police and fire pay for them?

    Once you figure out that residential roads are just part of a city infrastructure, then the all the numbers change dramatically.

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