Stephen Rees's blog

Thoughts about the relationships between transport and the urban area it serves

Archive for August 4th, 2008

A Mass Transit Mess

with 2 comments

Washington Post

The United States has a national transit program, which put them well in advance of Canada. Our federal government has been trying to persuade us that it is committing more to transit, but it is hard to feel confidence in what is clearly not a long term commitment but merely cherry picking capital projects to support with some funds. There is no clear set of criteria for determining which projects will get federal support. So we have the usual fudging around a fairly small pork barrel and the suspicion that political strings are being attached.

That being said, the US system is showing signs of more than short term strain. The transit funds are tied to the gas tax – as here a fixed number of cents per unit of volume. So as gas prices rise and sales decline, so does transit fund revenue. But of course one effect of higher gas prices is more demand for transit. Both Chicago and New york are looking at taking seats out of trains so that they will be all standing, just to get a bot more capacity out of an already overloaded system. To Vancouverites putting up with inadequate service and a ridership boost from the under priced UPass, this must seem very familar territory. And it is based on the same short term political pressure whereby the rich and powerful want stuff done for roads and regard transit as being for ‘other people’ and thus equivalent to some kind of welfare. The language used is the give away. When its a road it is “an investment” – when its transit it’s “a subsidy”.

Using gas tax to pay for transit is a common idea, but it does not make it a good one.   Indeed, wise politicians will avoid the use of predicated taxes that can only be spent on one program, and rely on a consolidated fund, when projects can be weighed against competing priorities. Otherwise you end up building things you do not really need just becuase there is money in the fund.

But in this case the need is for more transit – yet the Republicans want to take money from transit to make up for years of neglect of highway infrastructure. Because once again, the were no federal funds for maintenance, only for capital projects. So no one did any life cycle costing and bridges fell down because they weren’t looked after properly – since they could only be paid for by hiking local taxes, not something any local politician who wants to get re-elected likes to do.

And as always short term political advantage counts for much more than long term economics. And the lame duck president’s cabinet know that the fall out from this stupidity will fall on the next, Democrat White House, not them.

Written by Stephen Rees

August 4, 2008 at 10:53 pm

Posted in Economics, politics, transit