Saturday, October 2, 2010

Lisa Schweitzer on Transportation funding

She bring nuance to an issue that is often argued about with slogans (go to her post for graphs).

One of the common arguments I hear is that transit is underfunded. Now, this is a subjective question. For those who believe that having transit is absolutely vital to cities, no amount would be enough. So that’s not the point.

The other argument that I hear is that we spend too much on highways rather than transit. Again, subjective. There’s no way to suss this question easily enough for a blog post.

But we can take a look at what people seem to believe is a disparity in funding.

This is the graphic you are most likely to see when we discuss differences between highway and transit funding:

Ok, so of the total, highways get about 55 to 60 percent and transit gets 17 percent on average over the time period, but by the end of the time period, transit’s share has risen to about 20 percent and highways has gone to about 54 percent.

So that’s a pretty big difference in funding. But when you factor in the passenger miles served, the calculus changes. In the following graphic, I have assigned 100 percent of the spending on highways to passenger cars–a major overstatement, but it serves the point. It’s an overstatement because highways also serve trucks (a big deal), motorcycles and some transit (less of a big deal.)

My transit advocate friends will patronize me at this point and lecture me about how I’m not factoring in the external costs of the cars–and that’s true.

But I am not sure that external costs are relevant to expenditure fairness. Whether we factor in external costs or not is relevant to tax policy, for sure, but it’s probably not relevant to the budget equity arguments often made. It’s one thing to talk about optimum investment, which would require marginal social cost: it’s another to try to figure out if transit exists is “David” to auto’s “Goliath”.

Here, we’re trying to figure out if transit riders are getting the shaft. Are they getting the shaft (the transit advocate side)? Or are they rolling in dough they don’t need (the Reason foundation argument)?

This is one of the few times I actually might believe the apples and oranges arguments about comparing. Transit is in a building stage, but highways, for the most part, are in the maintenance phase. We could argue ourselves in circles: to reach investment parity, we’d need to double the transit numbers per passenger mile, etc, etc.

I just don’t know what I think. I need to fiddle with the numbers more.

All these data are from BTS, btw.