The Wall Street Journal ran an editorial earlier this week lambasting Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood for promoting a "car-free utopia." What did LaHood, a Republican, do to earn theWSJ's contempt? He supported a US Senate transportation bill that would have preserved a Reagan-era guarantee that 20 percent of the proceeds from the national highway trust fund go to transit, not roads. Even worse, he "has been pushing a strange 'livability' agenda, which he defines as "being able to take your kids to school, go to work, see a doctor, drop by the grocery or post office, go out to dinner and a movie, and play with your kids in a park, all without having to get in your car."
"This is the mind of the central planner at work, imagining that Americans all want to live in his little utopia."
I know, I know: Bring out the smelling salts---the "strange" notion that people might not want to have to drive everywhere is truly bizarre, isn't it?
Leaving aside the name-calling, the editorial just gets its facts wrong.
First, it claims that gridlock on our nation's highways "could be alleviated by building more highway lanes where they are most needed and using market-based pricing—such as tolls—for using roads during peak travel times.”
I'm with them on tolls, but more highway lanes? Apparently, the WSJ's editorial writers haven't heard of a little concept called induced demand---that is, if you build more lanes, the drivers will come, filling up the new lane capacity and then some. (This is true with all kinds of goods, but for the purpose of this post, I'll stick with available highway lanes.) Building highways doesn't "reduce congestion"---it just costs a lot of money, and leads to more people stuck in bigger traffic jams.
Second, the editorial asserts that public transit money is being "intercepted" from highways and spent on transit---spending the WSJ refers to as "subsidies." While it's true that the highway fund helps pay for transit, highways---as I believe I've mentioned before---are actually far more heavily "subsidized" than transit. In fact, since the interstate transit system was built, the amount of government spending diverted to other purposes to pay for highways has exceeded "user fees" like gas taxes and tolls by more than $600 billion. Put another way, roads are subsidized at a rate of more than 50 percent---far more than the 20 cents or so that's "intercepted" from every dollar in the highway trust fund to pay for transit.
Next, the editorial makes a claim that's just laughably wrong. " Only in New York, San Francisco and Washington, D.C. does public transit account for more than 5% of commuter trips." That's weird, because last I heard, Seattle---to pick a random example out of thin air---about 21 percent of commuters get to work by transit. For downtown workers, it's more than 40 percent.
Finally, the editorial claims---again, laughably---that it's really unfair that big cities get more money for transit than, say, places like Akron, Ohio and Casper, Wyoming. "Politically powerful cities get a big chunk of the money, while many Western and Southern states get less back than they pay in." In reality, nearly every state in the nation gets back more from the highway trust fund than they put in; the exception is Texas, which gets back a dollar for every dollar it contributes. In fact, federal law dictates that "donor" states receive no less than 90.5 percent of what they put in.
As for that "car-free utopia"? LaHood has repeatedly urged Congress to pass the Senate version of the transportation bill, not because he wants to force everyone out of their cars, but because, he has said, the nation's highways are "one big pothole" that needs to be fixed. How's that for fanciful and utopian?
By the way: The WSJ's alternative to the Senate transportation plan---which, to reiterate, dedicates just 20 percent of the trust fund to non-highway purposes---actually goes beyond the House version of the proposal, which LaHood famously said was so bad it "defies belief."
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