Monday, April 3, 2017

It's Not Devolution, It's Spite

There's been a lot of discussion about devolution over the last few years.  We even had Bruce Katz from Brookings on the podcast to talk about the phenomenon in England where up until 2000, London didn't have a mayor or much say over local matters. 

But even before the new administration made the idea more real with threats to the New Starts and TIGER capital transit funding programs, there's been a push to discuss the idea even more.

On this blog, the idea was passed over briefly when talking about Caltrain funding getting pulled out right at the last second after over a half decade of planning for electrification, and I even think that devolution of some kinds might be a good idea.  But it shouldn't be punishment for political opposition.

But this weekend in Forbes another economics professor, this time libertarian leaning Jeffrey Dorfman at the University of Georgia, has come out in favor of what he calls de-federalization.  What we all know as devolution. 
While many city, state, and federal politicians are decrying the very idea of such transit funding cuts based on the harm that will befall their transit systems without access to such federal funding, what is missing from their argument is any explanation of why the federal government should have been giving them money in the first place.
He then goes on with the tired arguments of "transit doesn't pay for itself" and an interesting new wrinkle for me that sounds a bit too "let them eat transportation cake" for my taste "let's give poor people a tax credit".

Of course roads don't pay for themselves either but driving is such a virtuous activity it shouldn't be hindered in any way right?  Texas even calculated how much tax people would have to pay to break even.  But those analysis were taken down perhaps because they were too true.  Good thing we captured them.
Applying this methodology, revealed that no road pays for itself in gas taxes and fees. For example, in Houston, the 15 miles of SH 99 from I-10 to US 290 will cost $1 billion to build and maintain over its lifetime, while only generating $162 million in gas taxes.
That's a 16% farebox recovery just for the tracks. The Center for American Progress also did an analysis looking at major roads and whether they paid for themselves.  The maps are great if you get a chance to look.

But then Professor Dorfman gets to some points I kind of agree with, but for different reasons.
For the most part, transit systems are local matters. Using federal taxes to collect money from the whole country and then send it back to each local transit system is a terribly inefficient way to raise money for transit and is also inherently unfair as different locales receive back either more or less than they paid in.
I would make the same arguments for red states taking blue state hand outs for freeways to fuel sprawl.  But here comes the cognitive dissonance... 
This common practice of using federal funds for local projects in order to hide the true cost should be stopped. The federal government should pay for the things that are truly national in scope (like the interstate highway system).

The only thing that is truly national in scope are the parts of the highway system that are outside of major cities where trucks conduct interstate commerce.  The majority of traffic in cities are not trucks just passing through. It's traffic for regional trips.  Houston's I-10 is now 26 lanes west of the 610 loop, those were created for the Louisiana to New Mexico traffic right?

But aren't most transit trips commute trips as well? And isn't interstate commerce done by train on tracks freight rail companies own and pay property taxes on? Should trucking companies be paying for the roads the operate on or do we see them as a public good? 

We can flip this back and forth and argue what is "national in scope" all day I'm sure.  The point is that it's often based on ideology and what is virtuous in the eye of the person doing the analysis.  In a true libertarian world they'd have a user fee on everything.  But I'm not sure how that works on local streets or things we want to incentivize like say, using more compact transportation modes for traveling into a dense city center because that's where economic activity happens due to agglomeration effects.

But this gets to another point about local decision making as well.  Urban areas are set up to be ruled by the forests.  MPOs are often stacked with suburban representatives and regional transit is hard to create with so many fiefdoms.  In a discussion about the recent highway collapse in Atlanta, New York Magazine goes through all the reasons why having 29 counties in a single metropolitan area makes it impossible to build useful transit. Our extremely racist urban pasts.
Metro Atlanta is scattered across 29 counties, which has made it easy to confine public transit narrowly to the heavily African-American Fulton and Dekalb counties.
Atlanta's history on this is well documented.  But what about other states who have libertarians who hate transit to begin with.  Like say...Texas.
Burton’s bill, which has passed through committee and is awaiting attention from the full Senate, would require that every city through which a commuter line passes hold an election before federal funds are accepted for the projects.
There's a lot to unpack in a bill like this.  Such as why does a city have veto power over a regional project.  Why are rail projects singled out?  I've asked this before, but why does a city need to vote for every single transit project but not a single highway project.  They are both regional projects.  They are both subsidized.  Some might argue we should have that power, I'm not so sure.

But it leaves a place for the federal involvement in large infrastructure projects. So let's not kid ourselves that there's something economic about devolution of transit and not roads to the local level.  And what does local mean anyway?  Because if we go to the state level we all know where the money will be re-purposed.

If we were going to be real about a devolution conversation, we wouldn't just start with the dirty hippy transit.  It's just sad that we know it's all for political show to "punish dirty cities"


Unknown said...

A few thoughts here:

1) As a GA native it is important to note that counties in GA are extremely small. What a city or township does in other states is often seen as the counties' responsibility. GA is the largest state east of the Mississippi and has 169 counties. Florida is the second largest and has 67.

2) I think most of the discussion about funding transit should more appropriately circle back to the question of what we do with urban mobility. It is not obvious to anyone I think that a corridor with a 4 lane or 6 lane improved street and 20k-50k automobiles per day has any outlet except for going limited access (freeway) or multiple modes of transit. To provide sufficient transit capacity to grow that corridor (from the current people of probably around 30k-75k people) to something much larger would require multiple transit modes - e.g., very expensive. More expensive than anyone has money for.

Pantograph Trolleypole said...

Thanks Jon for the comment. GA seems to have the same problem with counties that SF has with transit agencies and cities. 29 transit agencies. I know each place wants their own control. But it doesn't seem efficient at all.

Scott said...

Hello from Australia, where I see a similar thing happening with our Federal politics and funding decisions. The Liberal Party (our equivalent of the Republicans) has been funding freeway projects strongly in preference of transit projects, using similar reasoning. The freeway projects are neither cheaper nor lead to better economic outcomes. Here we can now build an LRT with the capacity of a six lane freeway for about 2/3 the cost of a six lane freeway. Yet the latter still gets funded. As you say, this is not being thrifyy, it is political vindictiveness.