Trains For America

More choices for better transportation

How to talk to conservatives about transit, high speed rail, and the meaning of life

Well, we may have to leave off that part about the meaning of life and just leave it to Monty Python. Nonetheless, there is a communication gap and there may be a realistic way to bridge it. An alert reader sent a link to an excellent interview on Infrastructurist.

Matt Dellinger spoke with William Lind, director of the Center for Cultural Conservatism at the Free Congress Foundation and the co-author, with the late Paul Weyrich, of the recent book Moving Minds: Conservatives and Public Transportation.

This expansive Q&A covers many topics of interest to those of us who propose balanced transportation policies. Among those issues is one often hashed out in our comments section.

Another idea that’s pervasive is that public transportation is subsidized but the gas tax fully pays for highways.
That’s a powerful argument the libertarians make to conservatives, and it’s bunk. The current dominance of roads is due to massive subsidization by government which through most of the twentieth century competed with privately owned, privately operated railways including streetcar systems that had to pay taxes. Every conservative understands very quickly what happens when you tax one mode and subsidize the other. The taxed mode disappears and the subsidized mode becomes dominant. Nothing about our current imbalance in transportation is a free market outcome. Not in the slightest.

The notion that the gas tax covers all highway expenses is a notion that will send any state Governor into fits of laughter. The highways require enormous support, local state and federal, that goes well beyond what gas taxes bring in. So it’s not a question of a subsidized mode versus an unsubsidized mode.

Lind also expresses skepticism over federal spending on true European-style high speed rail and, consistent with our philosophy (proving beyond all possible speculation that it must be the correct position), and proposes improvements in regional rail networks by increasing speeds to the 110 mph range.

There is much material on local transit issues, but the philosophic issues are well handled and broadly applicable. It’s a must read.

Filed under: Amtrak, Passenger Rail Transportatio Policy, United States High Speed Rail

9 Responses

  1. fpteditors says:

    You are giving “conservatives” too much credit. 90% percent of them are corporate shills who never have a bad thing to say about the highway lobby. True conseratives DO exist, but they are about as common as free markets. Back to externalities…MetroriderLA did a post on a study of Orange County road costs and found that highway-fuel-use-taxes couldn’t even pay for the costs of vehicle collisions, never mind road construction and maintenance. Transit advocates need to stop kow-towing and begging. We need a mass movement for free urban public transit. Mayors, business leaders, community groups, do not wait for the federal government, you can do it for 60 basis points of tax.

  2. It is a fact that the per-passenger mile subsidy (counting the gas tax as a user fee) is something like half a cent per-passenger-mile, while the subsidy to Amtrak alone is about 22 cents per-passenger mile.* The direct sources are cited in this paper: http://www.cato.org/pubs/bp/bp107.pdf and they are good ones. Just because roads are subsidized to some degree doesn’t mean that subsidy is significant (given the fact that roads move a lot more people per day than rail) or that it is a good explanation of the modern preference for roads over rail. American’s drive for about 81% of the passenger-miles. In Europe, in spite of hundreds of billions subsidizing rail, the figure is around 76%. I’d be really interested in seeing the per-passenger mile subsidy figures over time, but that data is harder to come across. Everyone seems to be content to say “roads are subsidized” and leave it at that as if that explains anything.

    Also, my biases are as pro-transit as they come, and I’d love it if someone could point me to a more sophisticated libertarian argument in favor of transit that didn’t gloss over the facts.

    *That doesn’t take into account other forms of rail transit, but that would only push the ratio higher, given that every transit system in the country runs at a deficit comparing expenses to user fees.

  3. Allan says:

    Good points Andrew.

    You could get more conservative and libertarian buy off on rail projects if you could convince them that they would at least cover the operating and maintence costs. The initial capital construction costs aren’t usually as much of a problem as the coninuing call for more money to keep them running.

    Most of the studies that I’ve seen show that the gas tax does cover the highway expenses. Where the-roads-are-subsidized argument has some validity are local roads which are usually paid for by local taxes.

    A prime example is ftpeditors post – “MetroriderLA did a post on a study of Orange County road costs…” In most areas, city and county roads are not covered by a gas tax unless there is a local gas tax in addition to state and federal gas taxes.

    So what the pro-rail folks often do, incorrectly, is lump the local roads with the highways and cry, “See! Roads are subsidized too!”

    Not only that, but money from the gas tax is siphoned off to subsidize transit. So one of the first reactions will be, “If the roads need a subsidy then let’s start by returning the money given to transit to the road fund.”

    As for whether the gas tax covers the highways, I checked one of the more liberal states in the Union … Massachusetts. Here is a quote from their website about the MA Highway Fund: “The Fund pays all transportation-related expenses, including debt service on bonds issued for transportation purposes. The fund finances highway maintenance and safety services and the state’s share of federally sponsored highway projects as required.” http://transportation.blog.state.ma.us/blog/2009/02/current-gas-tax-where-does-it-go.html

    Hmmm, the Fund pays ALL transportation-related expenses … I don’t hear the governor of MA laughing that the gas tax doesn’t cover the highway projects.

    I know that TN has raided the Road Fund to balance the state’s general budget. Earlier this year (’09), there were committee meetings to discuss how to spend the money in the Fund … nothing about a Fund shortage. Don’t hear the governor of TN laughing either.

    And, in a previous post https://trains4america.wordpress.com/2009/07/02/cnn-addresses-high-speed-rail/ , I explained by a subsidy for roads doesn’t matter.

  4. Allan says:

    As for the point of this article, it’s obvious that y’all have absolutely no clue as to how to talk to conservatives and especially libertarians. Repeating the mantra in a slightly different way and expecting a different reaction kind of meets the definition of crazy (repeatedly doing the same thing and expecting different results).

    Basically what you’re saying is that two wrongs make a right. For the moment let’s assume, in arguendo, that you’re correct about the subsidization of roads, a libertarian will immediately tell you that the correct solution would be to end subsidies for the roads … not give another transportation mode a subsidy.

    Conservatives and libertarians would want to know how much of a subsidy and how much the gas tax would need be to be raised to cover it.

    You see, even if they don’t know the stats that rail (transit, commuter, and Amtrak) account for less than 1% of the transportation market (Bureau of Transportation Statistics, 2006), they intuitively know that rail is a minor player in transportation and aren’t willing to throw money at it especially in these tight fiscal times when they do know that it will require even more money (their taxes) to keep them running.

  5. mh says:

    how much tax revenue do you think a state will collect if there were no highways?

  6. Anonymous says:

    Good points Andrew.

    You could get more conservative and libertarian buy off on rail projects if you could convince them that they would at least cover the operating and maintenance costs. The initial capital construction costs aren’t usually as much of a problem as the continuing call for more money to keep them running.

    Most of the studies that I’ve seen show that the gas tax does cover the highway expenses. Where the-roads-are-subsidized argument has some validity are local roads which are usually paid for by local taxes.

    A prime example is ftpeditors post – “MetroriderLA did a post on a study of Orange County road costs…” In most areas, city and county roads are not covered by a gas tax unless there is a local gas tax in addition to state and federal gas taxes.

    So what the pro-rail folks often do, incorrectly, is lump the local roads with the highways and cry, “See! Roads are subsidized too!”

    Not only that, but money from the gas tax is siphoned off to subsidize transit. So one of the first reactions will be, “If the roads need a subsidy then let’s start by returning the money given to transit to the road fund.”

    Now, as for whether the gas tax covers the highways, I checked one of the more liberal states in the Union … Massachusetts. Here is a quote from their website about the MA Highway Fund: The Fund pays all transportation-related expenses, including debt service on bonds issued for transportation purposes. The fund finances highway maintenance and safety services and the state’s share of federally sponsored highway projects as required. http://transportation.blog.state.ma.us/blog/2009/02/current-gas-tax-where-does-it-go.html

    Hmmm, the Fund pays ALL transportation-related expenses … I don’t hear the governor of MA laughing that the gas tax doesn’t cover the highway projects.

    I know that TN has raided the Road Fund to balance the state’s general budget. Earlier this year (’09), there were committee meetings to discuss how to spend the money in the Fund … nothing about a Fund shortage. Don’t hear the governor of TN laughing either.

  7. Allan says:

    Oops, didn’t mean to post as anonymous.

  8. Paul says:

    US legislation would give up to $4,500 for owners to scrap old vehicle, buy new efficient one

    http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/politics/sns-ap-us-cash-for-clunkers,0,289076.story

    of all modes of transportation, only trains are subsidized, right???

    Here’s another beauty-

    Highway Trust Fund Going Broke…Again

    http://wonkroom.thinkprogress.org/2009/06/02/highway-fund-broke/

    And let’s not forget the airlines-

    “The Department of Transportation (DOT) pays a few small airlines $110 million a year total so they can profitably carry as few as four passengers per day to nearby hubs, often for rock-bottom fares. For example, a round-trip in Montana from Miles City to Billings — a two-hour drive away — costs passengers just $88 with a 30-day advance purchase on Big Sky Airlines because the government kicks in $779.”

    http://www.usatoday.com/news/washington/2007-12-30-cheap-flights_N.htm

    And this-

    http://www.murtha.house.gov/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=705&Itemid=1

    so now we can finally put this myth to bed for good, right?

    THIS JUST IN – AIRLINE SUBSIDY TO INCREASE!

    http://apnews.myway.com/article/20090714/D99DT3JO0.html

    “The legislation approved by a House Appropriations subcommittee would give $173 million in the upcoming budget year to the Essential Air Service, which provides subsidies to small airlines to fly unprofitable routes. That’s a $53 million increase.”

    “In many cases the flights are nearly empty. In other instances, such as flights between Buffalo Niagara International Airport and Jamestown, N.Y., just 76 miles away, it’s quicker to drive than fly.” Or have a connecting train at a decent speed and frequency.

  9. Allan says:

    Paul – “US legislation would give up to $4,500 for owners to scrap old vehicle, buy new efficient one”

    This is not a road subsidy AND it is a bad program that should itself be scrapped. BTW, this is a liberal, environmentalist idea of way to get some old cars off the road. While the idea MAY have SOME merit, the implementation is horrendous.

    Paul – “Highway Trust Fund Going Broke…”

    Let me help you with the English here … Going Broke is the present progressive tense … not past tense … which means it is NOT yet broke. Which also means that they are currently paying their own way.

    Paul – “The Department of Transportation (DOT) pays a few small airlines $110 million a year total…”

    Let me understand your argument … DOT gives a FEW SMALL AIRLINES $110 million a year and this justifies giving Amtrak over a billion a year???

    Any fiscal conservative or libertarian will be glad to end the $110 million to a few small airlines in exchange for ending the billions in subsidies to Amtrak!

    Y’all just do not get it. I’ll say it again. Amtrak accounts for less than 1% of the transportation market. In essence, that means that 99% of the market does not care about rail transportation!

    Thus, if given a choice as to which mode of transportation that the avg taxpayer would be willing to subsidize … Guess which they will choose!

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