I recently attended an Intelligence Squared debate about raising the federal gas tax to fund infrastructure. Unsurprisingly for a debate taking place in New York City, raising gas taxes had a lot of audience support. What I found most curious was watching the nods and positive body language whenever the pro-gas tax side made points about helping the environment. Because you see, the debaters on the pro-gas tax side were the head of the Colorado DOT, who explicitly mentioned wanting to widen I-25, and a representative of the American Road and Transport Builders Association (ARTBA). Though including transit contractors, I think it’s fair to say ARTBA is a key part of the “road lobby.”
There’s a contradiction at the heart of American urbanists’ transportation advocacy. Though nominally devoted to expanding walking, cycling, and riding transit at the expense of driving, they have become one of the most vocal constituencies for perpetuating a system that sends 80 cents of every federal dollar straight to roads.
I wrote a piece on this over at City Journal. Here is an excerpt:
By agreeing to throw transit and biking advocates a small federal bone, the so-called “road lobby” inadvertently turned its enemies into allies. Not only does this current status quo entrench an overwhelming allocation of federal transport funds to roads; it also crushes transit agencies under a mountain of costly federal regulations. Rail construction is now more expensive in the United States than anywhere in the world.
Those who believe that Americans should fundamentally change the way they get around now find themselves defending a system that produces results contrary to their goals. Gas taxes, bridge tolls, and congestion pricing may be sensible policies on their own terms, but relying on revenue from these sources to pay for bike and mass-transit projects comes with an obvious limitation—the money goes away if people get out of their cars. Standard & Poor’s is just a messenger here. If the facts make alternative-transport advocates uncomfortable, it’s their own fault.
Click through to read the whole thing.
My colleague Nicole Gelinas made similar observations in the New York Post:
It’s not just environmental nuts who are saying that people want to use transit and bikes. Listen to the investment community. As Standard and Poor’s, the bond-rating agency, warned last week: “Millennials” — people born between 1982 and 2000 — “are driving less than older motorists did” at the same age — “and when they do get behind the wheel, they are . . . in smaller, more fuel-
It’s all wonderful, then, that people are changing their behavior — except for the fact that the country needs for people to keep driving ever more miles so that it can fund its highway and transit infrastructure. Remember: Just as not everyone needed to default on his mortgage to cause a housing bust, not everyone needs to take the bus instead of a car to cause a roads bust.