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Josh Barro

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You are missing the point. It is not cost that keeps the mass transit down in the US. It is PROFIT margin. Who cares if people need it or would use it and spend far fewer resources. If people don't buy gas and cars, our economy would be shown for the FRAUD it is. Don't dilute yourself into thinking anything but profit mechanism is the driving force in this country. Just look at history and all the lies and corruption that has taken place to keep Oil the king. Wake up man!
Mr. Barro lumps together all partisans in a city as "urban liberals." This is a flaw in his argument. In our city (Milwaukee) we are accustomed to a division between motorists and transit riders. Transit advocates understand and welcome density as it will lower transit costs and make them more appealing to a wider audience.

Density allows for more green, and less sprawl. "Urbans" are divided on this issue but I, for one, welcome more discussion. Saving green in, around, and outside the city could be everyone's project. Once the suburbans see this they will welcome density that is far away from their lawns. We urbans would like to help them protect the trees.

Public wealth needs to be part of any accurate comparison of purely private expenses.
Michael D. Setty July 17, 2012 at 2:38 PM
Plus costs for so-called "free Parking" paid for by every economic activity under the sun EXCEPT the act of driving. Probably upwards of $500 billion per year.

Plus a myriad of other negative impacts not reflected in the price of gasoline, too long to list here.

Get your facts straight, please.
Does this calculation of subsidies adjust for all the Gas Tax that is diverted to other uses. For example, in Texas, about one-hald of the state gas tax is allocated to education and other non-transportation items.

At the Federal level, about 20% of the road gas tax is allocated to transit and other non road uses.
Of COURSE, public transit is going to be nearly fully funded by public. That's the way it's supposed to be, hence the word "public." Trying to diminish the fact that private motorists unfairly receive public subsidies by claiming that their cut, as a percentage, is smaller than what public transit gets is playing a shell game with the numbers and belies the fact that Barro has an axe to grind.

Such logic would be like claiming that because African-Americans and Latinos are just a small part of the population, then their high poverty rates are tolerable.

The bottom line is that private transportation (cars) gets 10 times more public money than public transportation (trains, buses, etc), even though half of taxpaying adults don't drive.

It's a racket and it has to stop.
You're forgetting just one tiny thing about motoring subsidies:

oil wars.
Sorry kalendjay but you don't get a ceegar either:

^Yes but only if you can adjust your schedule to run on the railroad's schedule and go where ther railroad runs. Otherwise you're screwed. Also, railroads are prohibitively expensive and invasive slicing communities very effectively in two.
^A major road has to be rebuilt on a schedule dictated by the amount of money put into its construction. Roman roads have been around for 2,000 years. I think, if we wanted to and were willing to pay the bill, we could manage something a bit better then eight years.
^Perhaps the author was referring to Amtrak which charges from about $120 for a one way trip between New York and Washington D.C. to $160. That's as opposed to Megabus which charges as low as $14 and sometimes gets up to twice that.
^Not even close. Congestion pricing's a way to monetize urgency. If it's worth more to you to get home more quickly then pay up.
^Oh if only that were true but it's not. Every one of thos jitneys, minibuses and taxis requires a human driver. A unionized, civil service driver. With a supervisor. Lots of supervisors. You want to know why Amtrak fares are so high? Now you know.
^As opposed to rail travel which merely requires that you go when the railroad schedule dictates and live where the railroad line goes. Always and everywhere.
^And at the end of the day you've got a means to go quickly and conveniently where you want to go, on your schedule, arriving within broad limits in any sort of conveyance you choose...

If you'd like to be introduced to a politician who thinks making all sorts of demands on private industry, on the flimsiest of pretexts, is a simply peachy idea, let me know. I'm sure I could arrange it there being so many to choose from.

Lastly, it should be remembered that there was a time when mass transit systems were never subsidized. That's when they were privately owned. Aw for the good, old days, hey?
Unlike the snow belt states, California’s roads require much less highway maintenance but California’s highway contractors are insistent on receiving their “just” share of earmarked state funds sourced from gasoline taxes. Roads here are re-surfaced two to three times as often as necessary based on the pavements’ surface condition. Imagine a state law mandating replacement of your vehicle’s tires every 10,000 miles regardless of tire wear so retail merchants can book the sales revenue – such a situation would be similar to the highway maintenance schedule crafted by our construction industry lobbyists.

Mass transit suffers similar raids on the earmarked transit funds. Buses trundling through suburbs are a quarter to half full during rush hour but these same buses, with 60 passenger capacities, dutifully make their rounds during non-rush hours completely empty of passengers throughout significant portions of their journeys. 25 miles west near San Francisco’s Chinatown, these same 60 passenger buses are illegally overloaded with human sardines for portions of their route during the morning and evening commutes. The only efficient attribute of California’s highway maintenance and mass transit systems is the daily collection of vast tax revenues to fund these perfectly legal swindles.
"As for highway construction and maintenance, governments at all levels spent $181 billion on them, of which nearly $98 billion came from taxes and fees paid by drivers and the remainder, $83 billion, from general revenues."

Mr Barro: thanks for the infromative article. I would like to use some of the info in other venues. But if challenged, I would have to reply "The numbers are from an article at City Journal". Lefties would equate this to "I got them from Carl Rove". Could you tell us where you found the numbers. Thanks.
Geography is also a major factor. The USA is a huge country with vast distances to cover. Europe is much more compact. Everything is close, and the population density of the region means far more tax Euros per unit of land area compared to tax dollars available per acre here in the US. No trains make any sense in most of the country. Where trains do make sense, let their users pay for them just as they demand road users pay for roads.

And before they get too upset about pitching in for roads, let them do without any goods or services brought to them on the roads for one month and then get back to me.
Sorry, no ceegar, Josh, there is no way getting around the need for public transportation, despite the Chamber of Commerce style recital of fiscal gripes in this article. A few facts uncovered in the rock ribbed annals of economics proves the point:

^One lane of railroad track carries the same traffic as six lanes of roadway, and saves countless city blocks of parking space. Building those roads will be prohibitively invasive and costly.
^A major road must effectively be rebuilt every 8 years, whereas track can be squeezed for 20 years or more, with minimal effort to grind the metal of friction causing rust.
^ The jibe (I read in on of the bloggers) that railroads benefit the rich who pay no taxes needs clarification. Rail regulation usually requires suppression of rates or overbuilding of capacity (the latter in the UK). This hardly benefits "the rich" who to my knowledge, have long ago disappeared as a rentier class of rolling stock and rail easements.
^ Congestion pricing is all the rage among economists to move car traffic, but this is nothing more than a means to drive motorists into rush hour mass transit -- and rightfully so, since those commuters will not significantly change their commuting hours, but will now have an acceptable means of financing trains and buses.
^ The expense of buses can be scaled down by scaling down the size of vehicles to jitneys, minibuses and taxis. Ridership increases with "flexride" trip planning, which has been with us since the 70's, as is more affordable that ever thanks to texting (and those cell phones are cheap!)
^ The oh-so-painfully-modest subsidy to private transit and roadways subborns massive delays and bottlenecks in traffic, causing hundreds of billions of dollars a year in freight and manpower expense,wasted fuel,pollution, and even urban decay.
^ Bureaucracies such as the New Jersey Turnpike Authority perpetuate themselves and mediocre management in the name of the ability to self finance (yet another lane widening now!), while shuffling road congestion elsewhere, and avoiding better modal solutions to transport. So a road subsidy can be recalculated and enlarged in terms of cost ineffectiveness and bad opportunity costs.

At the end of the day, the conclusion that bad land planning is really the root of all transportation socialism is a real fob. I have never seen a politician advocate the simple expedient of making a mall, a parking lot, or a traffic intersection more bus friendly. Maybe the statism is all in favor of Detroit.
"An ironic result is that the very urban liberals who like to complain about suburban sprawl can end up encouraging it." Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Now try to explain that to some people in Cambridge, MA or Berkley, CA.
If we're going to count private costs of motor vehicle use borne by users, why not count the externalities of motor vehicle use? Injuries and property damage from crashes. Increased other medical costs due to inactivity (drivers don't have to walk as much), leading to medical expenditures from the public purse and increased health insurance costs for everyone. What about local air pollution? Global warming? Land unavailable for other uses or property taxes because it's allocated to car movement and storage? This is far from a complete analysis.
Inequities result from not making the beneficiaries pay in proportion to their benefit. If the beneficiaries do not benefit enough to pay for the project, the project is not economical and should not proceed. Mass transit such as heavy rail benefits the nearby land owners, who reap large profits while the taxpayers pay the bills.
Interesting article. However, you overlook one important and very large subsidy for automobiles, the subsidies and supports of the oil industry.

There are huge government subsidies expended both directly and through the tax system to support and encourage oil exploration, exploitation, transportation, and refining.

That does not even include the very large indirect oil subsidies through military and other activity designed to secure access to oil for both the US and the rest of the developed world. It is quite clear, for example, that minus the issue of oil and our automobile driven appetite for it, our level of interest in the Middle East and the Persian Gulf would be roughly the same as our interest in Chad -- a change of focus that would save tens if not hundreds of billions of government dollars each year.
Kevin Klinkenberg July 03, 2012 at 10:54 AM
Good article - a few quick responses:
1. Yes, planning and zoning is the culprit. But don't underestimate how much of this is dictated by public opinion. Just try up zoning a corridor or neighborhood, and see how violently people react to the change. Or, god forbid, requiring street connections, apartments, etc. As always, the people themselves are at the bottom of this.
2. I think we underestimate some of the indirect expenses - those vehicle fleets, for example that government agencies and businesses have to have on hand now, b/c of the sprawling infrastructure. I noted that's not in the cost chart above, and probably very hard to quantify. But, it's very significant - think for example of how it's affected the operations of the post office.
3. Also consider a great deal of that roadway infrastructure is deep into deferred maintenance. So, yes, while the gov't expenditure percentage might be around 8% - it would be quite a bit higher if we actually funded repairs/maintenance at a level we should be doing (but cannot afford)
4. Finally, on transit - would love your opinion on a piece I wrote about how we should consider just making basic bus service free, since the subsidy is so high as you allude to above. Please see:


Good article, but it would benefit from at least a nod toward the subsidies in the form of US military costs in protecting oil supplies for cars. Also the societal subsidies in absorbing the costs of air pollution, and as other commenters have said, absorbing the costs of climate change.
No mention of the long-term financial costs of global warming? Harder to calculate, but far more expensive than anything listed in the article.
Cities could "allow" all the density they want, that doesn't mean it will happen. A city like Detroit isn't going to get dense because nobody wants to live or work there.

The problem is not with zoning in most cases, it is urban decay and it is occurring in every large metropolitan area in the country. The areas where that is not the case like NYC are unaffordable to live in. They already have transit in any case.

In my area, you could never afford to build a mass transit network sufficient to get people door to door, existing commuting patterns wouldn't support it. Passenger rail is a 19th century idea that is inextricably linked with oppressive government regulations relative to where people are allowed to live and work.

Most people want personal transportation because it allows them to travel where they want, when they want, as well as handle other errands like picking up kids or going to the store. It near impossible to do that with trains and buses.
I take issue with the article's contention that many people are "non-users" of roads. Almost everyone eats - and groceries get to the stores using the roads. Likewise with many other consumer goods. There are few, if any, non users.
In reply to werneken, I would observe that the people who buy expensive homes in far-flung subdivisions are paying whatever it costs to get their children into a school where the convoy moves at a speed that is consistent with getting a primary and secondary education that will provide enough actual learning that the kid has a chance to get into college on his/her merits.

Far too many of our public schools are so bad that short of fanatical individual study efforts, no student from such a school has any chance at all to merit admission to college. No chance to know enough to be equipped to do college level work. If the teachers don't know how to add fractions, for instance, the kids have next to zero chance of learning how either. But it's not all the fault of the teachers. If too many of the kids have parents (or single parent) who hold schooling in contempt, or just don't have time and energy to help or encourage the kid at home, then the teacher's job is hopeless.
Costs for any sort of public infrastructure are egregiously high. Auto buyers can get cars that are built by well paid, but not well featherbedded, non-union workers. Gasoline refineries are not hotbeds of corruption and nepotism. But public works are almost a synonym for corruption. It's a shame, because as a result, we underinvest in public works. At their fair price, we would "buy" more, and be better off for it.
when i was a college student in a big city it took a half mile walk, then a streetcar, then a train, then another streetcar, then a mile walk to get to school. the return trip was usually worse because of rush hour. but, there was no alternative. now if i had wheels...
Carl Van de Craats July 02, 2012 at 2:38 PM
Having lived in "two-fare" zones in the outer boros all my life, I find much to laugh about in these mass transit pieces. First, ferries are dreadfully under-utilized and over-priced. The city is a series of islands, yet there is relatively little ferry service. Second, no one wants a bus stop or train station too close to their home. Third, try acquiring and hauling groceries or clothes for a few kids (who need restrooms, get car sick, etc) on mass transit. Fourth, mass transit is often construed to get people to a single central zone. Try getting from, say, Bay Ridge to Rockaway without massive time-consuming roundabouts and detours. And last, there is too much inappropriate anti-social behavior on mass transit. Some homeless smell so bad that the entire subway car clears out. Then there's fighting, rude bahvior like seat hogging, dining on chicken wings and throwing the bones on the floor, or spitting seeds and shells out. I'll leave litter alone at that. I have witnessed urination, expectoration, defecation, regurgitation, masturbation, ejaculation, and copulation on my sojourns. Please don't talk about subsidies when my taxes subsidize the likely fare-beating miscreants and layabouts who are the ones who engage in this ghastly anti-social behavior.
My observations, and I could be off here, is that zealous advocates of mass transit tend one or a combo of three things: young, single, no kids. These tend to make life much easier to accommodate without, or very little use of, a vehicle. Thus they have a hard recognizing why so many individuals and families have a strong reliance on vehicles.
Michael Bruce identifies the basic problem with public transit-- that it can seldom provide a single-seat ride from where you are to where you want to go.

Even when rapid passenger rail is available, the complete trip becomes walk-bus-train-bus-walk. The end-to-end time inevitably becomes too long.

And mass transit (all of it, but especially rail) has huge economies of scale. Trying to operate an extensive system with too few passengers (because most choose to drive) is going to be costly when calculated on a per-passenger-mile basis.

Transit promoters need to give up their dream that drivers will abandon their cars if only the transit were better or if driving became more expensive. The only way that's going to happen is if a fundamental solution is found to the multiple-seat-per-trip problem.

Further, if most of us do become dependent on transit we will then be held hostage by the transit unions- and, transit promoters need to provide a solution to that as well.

Which leaves justifying transit primarily as a service to those who are unable to drive (perhaps because they can't afford to, or because they have handicaps which make it impossible to do so).

It can be justified on this basis, but we should at least be honest about what it can and cannot do. Which is to say, outside of cities with very high population densities, few will choose to use it so long as they are able to own and operate a car.
Public transport will not, and cannot, be any sort of answer for anyone living outside a major conurbation. A modern economy is too diverse for that: the days when factory housing catered for factory workers within an easy walk of one's employment have gone.

My own experience will illustrate the point. I was a teacher, my wife a systems analyst. She succeeded in finding work in one city while mine was in another. Neither her office nor my school were in the city centre. Even had we lived next to her office, my journey would have involved:
...a walk to the bus-stop
...a change to a train
...a further bus-ride and
...finally a change of buses, then another short walk. The whole journey (less than 20 miles)would take, if I was lucky with connexions, around two hours morning and evening. A mishap at any stage might easily result in catastrophic lateness or even absence.

In the event we bought a house in a small market-town nearby and both commuted by car.

It is utopian to imagine that any mass transit system can, even with subsidies, provide an efficient or even a possible service except in a place like London. There are too many people needing to move daily to and from too many widely-spread locations. Public transport works only where there are many people all wanting to make the same journey, and where changes can be therefore kept to a minimum, or at least sensibly managed.
So if you account for a large majority of private spending on cars, and a small fraction of public spending on cars, you come to the conclusion that the public subsidy on cars is small?

Parking costs are a small fraction of the total provision of parking. Indeed, an estimate when it was studied in the mid-90's was about $68b each in cost of parking provision and cost of pollution, so it seems likely that in 2012 dollar, cost of roadworks alone is less than half of roadwork, parking provision and pollution cost combined.
You won't get far with the zoning and density argument, although as far as it goes it is 100% correct. Housing is a proxy for wealth-segregated schools which provide our credentialing, our excuse for who prospers and who does not. It may be that the prosperous contribute, but they are not deserving, just prosperous. The credentialing in turn is reinforced by affirmative action and civil rights laws, giving firms good excuses to let schooling determine who is considered to have minimum qualifications or more, and who is not.

For myself I WOULD uproot the whole structure of modern America, every part of it, starting with the whole concept of rights. But I doubt few agree. So good luck.
I liked many of the authors suggestions, such as allowing higher density development near transit lines. He lost me at the end, when he tells us, in effect, "and finally let's punish the workers." This is a suggestion he offers apparently for it's own sake, since he offers no evidence indicating that transit worker compensation is excessive. The race to the bottom has never succeeded in making a society richer. It merely redistributes wealth upward and concentrates it in fewer hands, leaving the vast working class with insufficient spending power to support growth in the economy.