Funding Mass Transit

I think I recognize one of the major reasons why UDOT leans so heavily on building roads rather than transit. It has to do with perspective:

Why is it that transit funding is a subsidy but highway funding isn’t? Why do some people complain about seeing empty trains or buses in off-peak hours, but they won’t complain about freeways that are empty or nearly empty during the same hours? Why do some people never consider that, by funding highways much more than transit through the years, we are forcing people, even ones of meager means, to buy expensive cars and to fill them with expensive gasoline? Why do we consider Americans to be car-crazy, when they really have few other options? (Deseret News article – Thumbs Up to Funding Mass Transit 7/1/07)

That really makes you take a second look at all the arguments against transit solutions. I still don’t think that government should subsidize fares for mass transit any more than they should send citizens vouchers for gas. However, it may be that building and maintaining a transit rail line should be of equal importance to building and maintaining a road (which government does all the time). Operating costs for a transit system should be covered by fares, but maintenance should be subsidized similar to maintenance on roads. Perhaps a tax on fares that covers the same percentage of line maintenance as is covered for road maintenance by gas taxes.

To conclude from the same article:

Of course we need to keep subsidizing cars through highway construction. But we need to subsidize transit, as well. If one of government’s legitimate functions is to provide the infrastructure to help commerce thrive, this makes sense. It even makes sense from a conservative point of view.

About David

David is the father of 8 extremely organized children (4 girls / 4 boys) who is constantly seeking answers to tough questions related to parenting, education and politics while moonlighting for 40 hours each week as a technology professional. He also enjoys cooking, gardening, and sports.

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7 Responses to Funding Mass Transit

  1. Tyler Farrer says:

    In my mind transit funding, like light and heavy rail is a horrible boondoggle in a way that roads aren’t. That is, with rail, that the government is paying for the vehicle as well as the corridor, whereas with roads the government only pays for the corridor.

    Let individuals pay for their cars– pay the extra sales tax for the purchase and leave the corridor for the government.

    I’m not alone in this. Michael Medved, a popular radio talk show host, and movie critic agrees.

  2. David says:

    I wish that transit funding were as simple as road funding. Though I’m a big fan of transit, I have to admit that the funding is more complicated and interconnected. On the other hand, transit is more sustainable than roads because it scales better as populations grow.

    I wonder if there is a way to fund the transit such that private corporations run the system and buy and maintain the vehicles while government buys and maintains the corridor and the rails – more like roads. I don’t know how anyone would feel about that but it seems like a reasonable compromise.

  3. Tyler raises a great point I hadn’t thought about before.

    My perspective is that we should simply pay for the transit that we use. That can work with roads, but I don’t think demand for bus and rail is high enough to make it work in that arena.

    I’ve never seen a toll road in Utah (I think there are a couple–Ogden?) but I think there should be. They’re all over the midwest and east, and they work very well. If it takes raising the gas tax to obviate having to use non-related tax dollars for roads, then perhaps that’s another solution.

  4. David says:

    I wish I knew the numbers on what it actually costs to build and operate a transit system. I do know that TRAX is bursting with riders so it seems that the demand is there in that area. Whether the demand exists in other areas such as the growing areas in the west of Salt Lake and Utah counties is an open question. My fear is that we rely so heavily on roads that it costs more to implement transit after we are convinced that the demand is in place rather than finding a way to implement some form of transit which can be scaled up with demand. (Something like dedicated bus lanes that can later be converted to light-rail.)

    As for the issue of toll roads – I’m in favor of those too. I used to live in Missouri and I think that the toll roads that I drove on were totally worth the cost of tolls. The problem I see in Utah is that most of us think tolling would be expensive or awkward because we are unfamiliar with it.

  5. Tyler Farrer says:

    I do actually support road tolls for the reason that Frank suggests. We should pay for the transportation that we use. If a road is not used, then the toll is not paid. Gasoline taxes don’t have the same effect on where we drive that tolls do.

    As to the success or failure of light rail in Utah. I don’t think that its measure of success is how many cram into the rails, but how many get off the roads.

    That still isn’t happening.

    Besides, even operating at full capacity, rail cannot pay for itself. If it did we wouldn’t be taxed for its use.

  6. David says:

    I wonder how we measure if people are getting off the roads. It seems that if they are riding light-rail they must not be on the roads.

    As for financing, I think that rail should pay for itself as much as roads – that might demand a fare increase. The key is that it should not be required to pay more than roads – if we fund road building through taxes then we should fund rail-building. For both roads and rails, operational costs should be paid for by use rather than taxes.

  7. Pingback: David Miller » Blog Archive » SEP Subsidies

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