Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Are There National Transportation Priorities?

The Associated Press surveyed Americans about what they think of various taxing and spending plans for transportation. An excerpt from the piece:
Six in 10 people surveyed said the cost of good highways, railroads and airports is justified by their benefits. Among those who drive places multiple times per week, 62 percent say the benefits outweigh the costs. Among those who drive less than once a week or not at all, 55 percent say the costs are worthwhile.
Yet a majority of Americans bristle at the most commonly proposed ideas from public officials and industry. For example, 58 percent oppose raising federal gasoline taxes to fund transportation projects such as the repair, replacement or expansion of roads and bridges. Only 14 percent support an increase. And by a better than 2-to-1 margin, Americans oppose having private companies pay for the construction of new roads and bridges in exchange for the right to charge tolls. Moving to a usage tax based on how many miles a vehicle drives also draws more opposition than support — 40 percent oppose it, while 20 percent support it.
Joshua Shrank notes:
"Congress is actually reflecting what people want," said Joshua Schank, president and CEO of the Eno Center for Transportation, a transportation think tank. "People want to have a federal (transportation) program and they don't want to pay for it."
I agree that people want things and don't want to pay for them, but how do we reconcile the national attitudes with the broad local support for higher taxes for transportation projects? Here is a City Lab piece about local support for transit, and here is a Mineta Transportation Institute research project that highlights some of the factors affecting local support.

One way to think about national support for higher taxes to pay for transport is that the nation is large a diverse. If you run with particular crowds you get the notion that we, as a country, agree that transit is great, roads are the future, everybody loves bike lanes, there is no better use of money than high speed rail, we should start by fixing the stuff we have before we build anything new, etc. In truth we, as a country, don't agree on much when it comes to transportation. Transit investment is great in certain places. So are roads. We should fix the infrastructure we have first, but we should also shrink our transport networks (road and rail alike).

What we don't have in the United States is a clear national need for lots of new spending on passenger travel. Lots of transit investment is based on local economic development rather than transportation improvements, hence the new and weird "transit is supposed to be slow" defense. We don't want the federal government spending transport money on football stadiums, so I don't know why we want federal money spent on transit  just to prop up private real estate values. Lots of roads are being built simply because that's how things are done when the money flows. There isn't a national or local need for a lot of new facilities, though this obviously depends on what and where.

Transportation projects actually have a very good track record of generating local support for new taxes and spending. Partly this is because the projects reflect local preferences, to which local politicians really are responsive. We should consider that one reason, if not the main reason, national transport policy is so uncertain is that there simply aren't any truly national priorities that can build necessary coalitions of support. However, we do have lots of very important local priorities.

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