When You Ride Alone …

Speaking of the Highway Trust Fund — talk of federal gasoline taxes reminded me that very early in the Bush Administration there was a big push to keep HTF money from being spent on mass transit.

Very basically, the gas taxes are collected by the federal government, which takes its cut and then allocates the remainder as the federal government sees fit. According to the Department of Transportation, “Of the 18.3 cents collected per gallon of gas, 12 cents goes into the highway account, 2 cents goes into the mass transit account, and 4.3 cents is credited to the general fund of the Treasury.”

So back in July 2001 some guy from the Heritage Foundation, naturally, complained that “our roads” were suffering because of the 2 cents that went to mass transit. “Our roads” need that 2 cents. And most of the mass transit money went to a handful of “rich” (read “blue”) states, anyway!

In the case of Virginia, as well as 24 other mostly Southern states, the amount of money returned is less than the taxes paid, while the other 26 states, mostly in the North, get more back than they pay. … today as much as 18 percent of trust-fund revenues paid by motorists are reserved for transit programs that benefit only a tiny fraction of commuters–currently about 5 percent.

Moreover, federal transit spending suffers from regional imbalances that are worse than those for highway spending. In 1999, more than 50 percent of federal transit spending went to just five states–California, Illinois, New Jersey, New York, and Texas.

I never realized that California and Texas were in the north, but never mind. I remember that some Republican politicians proposed sending all the money collected in federal gas taxes within a state back to that state, minus the federal share. That way, poor and hard-driving red states wouldn’t end up subsidizing rich mass transit-riding blue states. I recall some guy — I think it was a Texas congressman, but I can’t find a link — making speeches about the evils of subsidized (read “socialist”) urban mass transit versus good ol’ all American payin’-for-themselves highways stretching across the heartland.

One problem with that idea is that overall the federal taxes collected in blue states subsidize more programs in red states than the other way around. Paul Krugman wrote in May 2002,

As a group, red states pay considerably less in taxes than the federal government spends within their borders; blue states pay considerably more. Over all, blue America subsidizes red America to the tune of $90 billion or so each year.

And within the red states, it’s the metropolitan areas that pay the taxes, while the rural regions get the subsidies. When you do the numbers for red states without major cities, you find that they look like Montana, which in 1999 received $1.75 in federal spending for every dollar it paid in federal taxes. The numbers for my home state of New Jersey were almost the opposite. Add in the hidden subsidies, like below-cost provision of water for irrigation, nearly free use of federal land for grazing and so on, and it becomes clear that in economic terms America’s rural heartland is our version of southern Italy: a region whose inhabitants are largely supported by aid from their more productive compatriots.

I dimly remember Senator Schumer suggesting that maybe the “blue” states should get back all their taxes, too, and how would you like them apples?

And it’s not like mass transit consumers are getting a free ride. If you commute into Manhattan on the Metro North Railroad, for example, you pay between $123 and $357 a month, depending on where you live along the line. Long Island Railroad riders pay between $130 and $342 a month. But unless you get a subsidized parking place as a job perk (rare), it’s cheaper than driving. If you live in the city and take a subway to work, a 30-day unlimited ride Metrocard will cost you $78. For people in low-wage jobs that’s a lot. Yet the expense of operating these transit systems is higher than revenue. Subsidy is required.

Most of the nation’s wealth is generated in our cities, and most big cities couldn’t exist without some kind of mass transit system. It may be hard for a taxpayer in rural Nebraska to grasp that his life is better because of the Long Island Railroad, but it is. And now that the Age of Cheap Gasoline seems to be coming to an end, seems to me a lot of people who turned up their noses at mass transit in the past might want to change their attitudes.

Back where I grew up in the Ozarks, every weekday morning a great many cars carrying one passenger each head northeast highway 67 and then take highway 55 north into St. Louis, where the one passenger has a job. The drive takes an hour, give or take, assuming no bottlenecks form. And then, of course, in the evening they come back. This happens around every city in America. Now, I grew up in the Midwest and I realize everything is spread out there, and you need to drive to get anywhere you want to go. Manhattan may be the only place in America where people can function very happily without ever driving a car.

However, seems to me the day will come when fewer and fewer people will be able to afford to drive two hours a day between work and home. But how long will it take for conservatives to figure out that putting all of our tax dollars into highways while starving mass transit is, um, shortsighted?

8 thoughts on “When You Ride Alone …

  1. I live in Japan. Gas is a little over $5 a gallon here. We don’t own a car, instead choosing to live close to the train station. Public transport is excellent here. Moreover, Japanese companies pay for a worker’s commuting cost (but won’t pay if you drive). Therefore, many people who own cars only use them on weekends (and the cost of owning a car is pretty significant here in terms of parking cost and other taxes). When we lived in London, we also didn’t own a car, again choosing our housing close to a station. But Japan and much of Europe have put effort into their transportation policies. Americans have hardly bothered.

    My parents are in LA. Every year I go back the freeways seem even more congested and it always seems to be one person in a car. They’re moving down to San Diego soon. Traffic has increased there too, but it hasn’t reached LA levels yet. It’s really ridiculous, but so much of America is designed on the assumption that people must use their cars. I really don’t see an easy solution in sight.

  2. But Japan and much of Europe have put effort into their transportation policies. Americans have hardly bothered.

    We’re going to come to regret that, big time.

    so much of America is designed on the assumption that people must use their cars. I really don’t see an easy solution in sight.

    Conservatives have been actively hostile to mass transit as long as I can remember. They seem to think that mass transit is some kind of welfare transportation for the poor; real tax-paying Americans drive cars.

    But New York City doesn’t have a choice; mass transit is essential. So instead of creeping along in rush hour traffic in a car, I can take a six-minute walk to the train station and take a 30- (express) or 40- (local) minute ride to Grand Central station, sitting (usually) in a nice comfortable seat, reading or watching scenery. What’s not to like?

  3. pat in japan –

    Maha is so right. Ever since the seventies, we dems in California have been begging for mass transit systems, but the powers that be have always belittled us for this. They do to this day! Even the great systems we had in the past have been pulled out (the Pacific red cars) or starved to death Amtrak). Our talk radio demagogues jump on anyone who shows any sign of wishing for mass transit, as though it’s bound to be a boondoggle. And yet, as soon as gas prices go up, the buses become filled to overflowing (even as inconvenient as they are). But no, we Californians have to have freeways where people sit in their cars for four hours in order to travel a distance it would take 30 minutes if the roads were clear. I really don’t understand it. It’s nuts!

  4. It is crazy. When I was home this past summer, they were finishing the touches to an express bus lane that would go from the San Fernando Valley down to Hollywood where commuters can then catch a metro train into downtown LA. (I think I have that right.) I imagine it’s up and running but don’t know how popular it is. Under this administration in particular, it seems to be falling on state and local governments to do what they can.

    Maha is right about Americans living to regret it. What always amuses me is the apparent American belief that gas should be cheap. Go most places in the world and it’s not. It’s a vicious circle. People want to own huge cars with low gas mileage but get upset when gas goes up to $3 or more a gallon. Europeans and Japanese pay almost twice as much which is why high gas mileage and smaller cars are popular. Moreover, here in Japan, you pay a higher tax on cars that surpass a certain size.

    Unless you get a visionary leader along the lines of FDR (Gore seems to be trying for this environmental niche), someone who’ll say we need to do this and gets the American people behind him/her, I just don’t see anything other than incremental policy changes that don’t do much in the long run.

  5. Well, Rick, it sure did work for raising gas prices for the masses and oil industry profits for the few!

  6. I’d like to see better, cost-effective interstate transit, too, or a bigger investment in mass transit generally. A big problem is that the infrastructure is old, so it would be a big investment to upgrade and maintain a new or expanding system. Amtrak’s Acela trains were a good idea in theory, but they run on the old tracks, which is one of several reasons they’ve had so many mechanical issues.

  7. “But how long will it take for conservatives to figure out that putting all of our tax dollars into highways while starving mass transit is, um, shortsighted?”

    They may realize it, but they will never admit it.

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