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Subsidies, Traffic Congestion, and Giving Back

August 22, 2011

So it appears that with the release of the latest TSPLOST list is beginning to bring out the anti-transit campaign.  Not that they weren’t there before, now they just feel they have something tangible to argue with.  Take this fine piece of journalism, or maybe this one.  Both of these OpEd writers are opposed to TSPLOST, and especially the Cobb County rail line.  I particularly enjoy how both of them criticize the funding, percent of the population that would use it, and the narrow-minded short-sighted vision that they both possess regarding their county.

It seems that both of these “authors” are not pleased with the cost of mass transit and how much subsidy it has to receive.  Now I am by no means an expert on funding, but it does not take a genius to know that Coca-Cola or UPS didn’t step forward and say “Hey, we will pay for I-285!”  So if a private company didn’t pay for that road, or 99% of all other roads built within the metro, and the gas tax only covers a portion (similar to how fares cover a portion in mass transit), how were those roads paid for?  That’s right, subsidies.  How are those roads maintained, improved, widened, protected, patrolled, and cleaned?  You guessed it, subsidies.  In fact most groups have found that the gas tax is lucky to pay for 50% of road maintenance and construction, and that the gap between income (gas tax) and cost is at an astounding $600 billion (billion, with a “b”).  So if I may offer you a little advice Ms. Armstrong, and Ms. Dodd, if you want to preach fiscal responsibility regarding transportation, I suggest you find a way to make roads independently sustainable.

The first article also tried to make the claim that the reason why Georgia sits in so much traffic is that there are not enough roads to handle the volume.  It has been proven time and time and time and time……well you get it, again that the more roads that are added, the more cars that end up on them.  Every major transportation study has proven it.  If the 14 lanes of the Downtown Connector can’t handle what is there now, making it 20 lanes will not change the situation and that applies to all the roads.  In fact it even has its own term induced traffic.  Induced traffic is the reason why the Embarcadero Freeway was dismantled, Los Angeles abandoned double decker interstates, and why Robert Moses was eventually brought down by Jane Jacobs.

In the second OpEd the author claims that less than 5% of Cobb County would use this rail line, and that does not warrant the entire county having to pay the sales tax.  Well that could be understandable, if we were allowed to pick and choose where each of us sent a tax dollar, via sales, or gasoline.  But if this logic were to stand true then why should a Marietta resident have their gas tax money appropriated to fund a rural road that they would never use?  Why should some of my tax money be appropriated for a park on the other side of town that I may never visit?  Why should my gas tax money go to fund interstates that I will probably never drive on?  You don’t want to fund 5% of the population using mass transit, but you are willing to fund roads, of which you are lucky to ever use 5% of them in your lifetime, just in Cobb County. 

I think the thing that kills me the most, is that in both articles, their selfishness is unbelievably apparent.  They both keep referencing back to their county, or essentially any county that Atlanta is not in.  How this affects Cobb County, and even saying some of the counties will be “donor counties,” implying that they will give up the money but will see no benefit.  Ohh, this topic could be its own post.  First I must remind those in suburban counties and cities, that you would not exist if it wasn’t for the city.  It is a simple truth.  Without the initial development of the city, its businesses, inventions, products, notoriety, transportation  and so much more the suburbs would have never existed.  Rather than exhausting the topic, take a look at The Economy of Cities by Jane Jacobs, as she can break it down to the most simple of levels that even the staunchest of suburbanites cannot refute. 

Secondly, we come back to subsidies.  Given the articles, it is clear that they do not want to “subsidize” mass transit for the urban dwellers.  News flash!  We, the urban dwellers, have been subsidizing suburban living for years, decades if you will.  We have been doing so through increased utility costs, the result of having to stretch more power and water lines to your rural and low density developments.  We have been subsidizing fire, police, and medical care as the resources have been stretched more and more thin as they have to stretch their area of coverage further out to accommodate for low density living.  Additional unnecessary schools, illustrated by the nationwide attempt to begin consolidating them, were built and funded so that people could spread further out.  And we have sacrificed our cities, by allowing the car dominated suburbanites to come into the city from the hours of 8 to 5, dump all over it.  They spew their pollution into the city air, clog the roads, and use up government and city provided resources all the while, driving back to their bedroom communities, many times in other counties, not contributing a single tax dollar to the city, minus the occasional $10 dollar lunch.  So if it is subsidies that you, Ms. Dodd and Ms. Armstrong, are so concerned about, look at your own county’s citizens and the other counties you are so desperately “sticking up” for.  The city has been subsidizing your “quality of life” for decades; maybe it’s time you gave a little bit back, or at least attempt to lessen the burden on the city’s infrastructure by finding something besides another 14 lane interstate to move on.

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11 Comments leave one →
  1. August 24, 2011 5:19 am

    (Just got here from Streetsblog)

    The argument about Cobb County’s 5% is especially egregious when you think in terms of peak and off-peak travelers instead of drivers and transit users. Peak travel is the most expensive to provide, because it requires new capacity; off-peak travel is cheap, because it piggybacks on the capacity sized for the peak. The rail line is essentially extra rush hour capacity. Rail may only account for 5% of Cobb County’s population, but I’d bet the number of people who drive to Atlanta during rush hour is not a much larger percentage of the population.

    Maybe every time they propose to widen a road, the fiscal conservatives should write editorials decrying how off-peak and local commuters have to subsidize people who drive to downtown at 8 in the morning. Fair is fair, right?

  2. Debbie permalink
    August 24, 2011 1:39 pm

    Well said. I love the way you relate gas tax subsidies to fare box subsidies.

  3. atlurbanist permalink
    August 26, 2011 10:27 am

    Great post! I love this point:

    “We, the urban dwellers, have been subsidizing suburban living for years, decades if you will. We have been doing so through increased utility costs, the result of having to stretch more power and water lines to your rural and low density developments.”

    I’ll add that dwellers of downtown Atlanta (my home) have to accommodate suburban car-dependency through having our surface streets widened for the sake of commuting drivers and having our landscape crowded by parking facilities that decrease the walkability of the area.

    Not to forget the incredible damage done to the urban fabric by the connector highway and its ramps slicing a gulf through the center of the city.

  4. Freddie permalink
    August 26, 2011 7:39 pm

    Road subsidies: About 1 cent per passenger-mile, which is about 2% of the total cost of driving.

    Mass transit subsidies: About 75 cents per passenger-mile, which is about 75% of the total cost of mass transit.

    Subsidies overwhelmingly favor mass transit, not cars.

    • UrbanCommuter permalink*
      August 27, 2011 8:01 pm

      I would suggest you find a more substantial study. What you are referencing is a very superficial, surface argument. The 1 cent you refer to only accounts for the construction of a road (and if I am not mistaken only for one lane, which on average carries only 10 people per mile, much lower than transit). It does not account for the maintenance, cleaning, repairing, resurfacing, safety, widening etc. that all roads require. Your statistic regarding transit is misleading as well. It does not account for ridership levels (cities with higher ridership do not experience such high levels of subsidy), and it also factors in buses. This article is essentially road vs. rail, suburb vs. urban. Buses are highly inefficient thanks to idling, traffic, and lower passenger capacity. See school budgets if you want to learn how inefficient bus transportation really costs.

      Lastly I would suggest you look a little deeper than a google or wikipedia search regarding the cost of transit vs. roads. While the upfront costs of rail are higher than roads, its is substantially more sustainable, lasts longer and requires less maintenance. Also there are many subsidies that are inherent to driving and roads that are not accounted for. Oil production and importing subsidies, pet road projects from ignorant politicians, and the last time I checked, Siemens did not receive a government bailout (see GM and Chrysler) in order to stay in business, while taking multiple billions of dollars from citizens.

  5. Freddie permalink
    August 27, 2011 8:53 pm

    UrbanCommuter,

    The 1 cent figure for roads includes maintenance and repair as well as construction costs. But it wouldn’t really matter to the point even if it did not include those things. Even if the road subsidy were actually 2 cents or 3 cents, that is still vastly smaller than the 75 cents subsidy that is provided to transit.

    I don’t understand your point about buses. According to the latest data from the National Transit Database, subsidies to light rail are much higher per passenger-mile than subsidies to buses. Light rail has lower operating costs than buses, but the construction costs of light rail are so enormous (typically, $50-100 million per mile) that they swamp the savings from lower operating costs.

    Your post makes various other claims about subsidies from urban dwellers to suburban dwellers, but I’ve never seen any serious analysis showing that these claims are true. For example, how do you know that urban dwellers subsidize the costs of police and fire services for suburban dwellers?

    • September 5, 2011 10:31 am

      For those seeking detailed studies substantiating the points by UrbanCommuter, William Lind and the late Paul Weyrich published “Twelve Anti-Transit Myths: A Conservative Critique,” a detailed yet concise rebuttal to claims that subsidies are tilted towards transit, buses are more economical than rail, and so on, available online at http://www.smartgrowthamerica.org/weyrich3.pdf.

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