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.