Transportation Experts Blog

Contributor

Gabriel Roth

Biography provided by participant

Gabriel Roth, civil engineer and transport economist, a Research Fellow at the Independent Institute, has pioneered scholarly work on market-based roads, parking, and transit. Following a Rees Jeffreys Fellowship at the UK Road Research Laboratory, and research at the Department of Applied Economics (University of Cambridge), on the economics of car parking, he worked for 20 years in five continents as a transportation economist for the World Bank, and served for three years as President of The Services Group, a consulting firm specializing in market-oriented approaches to economic development. An author and contributor to scholarly volumes, his books include Paying for Roads: The Economics of Traffic Congestion (Penguin Books,1967); The Private Provision of Public Services in Developing Countries (World Bank, 1987); Roads in a Market Economy (Ashgate 1996); and Street Smart: Competition, Entrepreneurship, and the Future of Roads (The Independent Institute, 2006).

Recent Responses

May 22, 2013 10:43 PM

Data available from all periods and all countries indicate that people travel more when their incomes increase, and travel less when they become poorer. Should we not expect these effects to apply in the US today?

Most transport planners do not care much whether Fawn “hates driving”; they want to know how much she values her time, and the time of her 10-year-old child. It seems that she drives for the same reason that most of us do — to make the trips she has to in the time available to her.

Keith Laughlin’s son may be fortunate enough to have a job, but over 13% of young adults in the US do not. Is it surprising that young people drive less now than they used to?

Fawn asks whether “PIRG is on the mark in terms of its projections about reduced driving”. To be convincing, could PIRG produce data showing that people within the same income group are traveling less than they used to?

Are travelers likely to switch to transit as their incomes increase? Yes, of course they are, where transit can offer faster door-to

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May 15, 2013 10:40 AM

Toll setting involves difficult issues. I’ll try to answer two of the questions, and ask a few myself.

As the $2.1 billion tunnel was designed to last for “decades to come” it seems reasonable to set tolls for a lengthy period. Or at least to set the conditions governing the toll levels. Or would Judge Cales permit the government to reduce the toll soon after the facility was built, as happened in Bangkok some twenty years ago? If such changes by governments were possible, why would investors risk their money in public-private partnerships?

However, misbehavior in toll setting is not confined to public-private partnerships. Consider the manner in which tolls on the Dulles Toll Road are being raised six-fold by the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority (MWAA) to finance a rail line (the Silver Line) to Dulles airport. We all know that the Dulles Toll Road was built for, and paid for by, travelers not going to that airport. Why should they be forced to subsidize those who are?

As the courts have yet to decide whether the MWAA has t

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May 7, 2013 04:58 PM

Secretaries of Transportation are appointed to execute the policies of those who appoint them. As both Obama and Foxx are keen to spend taxpayer money on developing 19th century technology, the match should be a good one. Hopefully, the federal congress will deny the funds necessary for such waste.

Laura Barrett and other “transit” advocates — who have been remarkably successful in getting 20% of public transportation funds spent on modes that provide only 2% of passenger-miles — deserve to be congratulated on this appointment, which will mainly benefit unionized transit workers.

Fawn reported that Foxx “fought for a light rail and streetcar system in Charlotte”. He is also reported to have said that they help the poor. Those who understand the relationship between transport and US job creation know that the best way to help the poor get jobs is to help them travel by car. Foxx is obviously smart, so he is likely to realize this before his term is over. But is he likely to promote policies that conflict with the President&rsquo

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April 8, 2013 10:31 AM

Excuse my preaching, but maybe the issue needs to be clarified, as the phrase “Gas tax” is used for different purposes.

When first introduced, in Britain in 1911, the purpose of the tax was to provide “machinery by which the owners of motor vehicles, in combination and under state guidance, are enabled to expend money on roads for their mutual benefit."

In 1919 the concept was copied by Oregon, and subsequently by other states. In 1956 the federal government used it to finance the Interstate Highway System.

It might have been better to apply the phrase “road charge” or “road fee” for charges dedicated to roads, to distinguish them from taxes used to add to general revenues, or to finance elements of “infrastructure” that have nothing to do with road use. For example, as soon as Maryland’s fuel tax increases were announced, a local radio station proclaimed that Maryland’s proposed “Purple Line” could be rescued. We all know that the Purple Line would do little to help road us

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March 5, 2013 10:22 PM

The growth of Amtrak ridership would be significant if those who use it were to pay its costs. But rail passenger services rarely cover their costs. Does that not indicate that they’ve outlived their usefulness?

Profit is the measure we use to indicate whether activities produce benefits in excess of their costs. It is not difficult to understand why rail passenger services do not produce such benefits:

First, rail trains are not supposed to leave their rails, and can therefore travel only from one “station” to another. But most journeys are not station-to-station, and therefore involve changes to other modes.

Second, it is difficult for steel wheels to stop quickly on steel rails. Therefore fast rail trains have to run with miles of empty space in front of them. This reduces their carrying capacity. Rubber-tired vehicles, on the other hand, can stop more easily, and thousands per hour can travel on a single lane at high speed.

Third, it is difficult for passenger trains to share their track with other vehicles, so all track costs h

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February 25, 2013 10:38 PM

Thank you Robert Crandall for pointing out that many aviation activities — Air Traffic Control, for example — can be funded by user fees without the need for government funding. In Canada, Air Traffic Control is one of the services provided by NAV CANADA, a non-government corporation that owns and operates Canada’s civil air navigation services. Why not in the US?

Is not transportation, like food, water, and other essentials, too important to be left to the vicissitudes of politics? Should not transportation services be provided in response to consumer demand, and paid for by those who use them, like most other services in free societies?

Should not subsidies, if considered necessary, be provided locally? Why should farmers in Kansas pay to support the Washington Metro?

President Obama’s sequestration policy may, or may not be, a good idea. But it should have the positive result of encouraging those who use transportation services to seek to ensure that, in the future, they’ll be financed mainly by user fees, and thus insulated

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February 11, 2013 10:17 AM

All of us know that extra road-use charges are the only way to deal effectively with traffic congestion, and that the problem is how to introduce such charges.

One way to reduce Washington DC’s traffic congestion would be to get volunteers to pay extra for using congested roads at peak periods while, at the same time, rewarding those volunteers by enabling them to use DC roads more cheaply when they are uncongested. Modern electronics (e.g. GPS) enable such charges and rewards to be applied, without vehicles having to stop for toll payments, and without violating the privacy of road users. If voluntary systems succeed, they could be made compulsory and permanent.

By carefully choosing the financial charges and rewards, such a system could be made to cover its costs. But it probably would be better for it to produce surpluses for road improvement.

One way to kill such schemes would be for governments to take the surpluses. Governments wanting to get money from congested roads could do better by privatizing them, and then collecting rents from land us

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January 14, 2013 11:40 AM

Fuel taxes may indeed be “passé” as a way of paying for roads, and a mileage-based charge would probably be better, but the proposal made by Virginia’s Governor is much worse. It places highway financing in the hands of Virginia’s politicians, whose recent experience in financing transport infrastructure has been unfortunate.

Cannot the Governor find a way to get road users themselves to determine how to raise the funds they need to pay for roads? Could he not declare that after, say, the year 2014, no Commonwealth funds whatsoever would be allocated to roads, except out of a dedicated road fund to be established by the Commonwealth but paid for and administered by road users’ representatives?

Road users still determine how to pay for the vehicles they need. Why not let them determine how to pay also for the roads that carry them? Virginia’s consultants and universities have the expertise necessary to design a fund and system that would enable road users to meet the costs of the roads they are willing to pay for.

Gov

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December 20, 2012 10:40 PM

Emil points out that, in times of financial scarcity, it is even more important to use federal capital efficiently, and to invest in programs that bring in the greatest benefits and the highest economic returns. How right he is!

But, additionally, might there be other funding sources that could be tapped to provide facilities for which users would be willing to pay? Cannot states raise fuel taxes for dedicated road funds? Cannot IBTTA members provide tolled facilities, the tolls being paid electronically without vehicles having to stop? And express toll lanes, with tolls being varied to ensure desired traffic speeds at all times?

As for air traffic control, could we not follow Canada and privatize it? Nav Canada was praised by the International Air Transport Association as “a global leader in the efficient implementation and reliable delivery of air traffic control procedures and technologies”. Should we not be studying the Canadian experience?

And might not facilities financed by users (rather than by taxpayers) be more likely than federal fundin

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December 5, 2012 03:26 PM

While everyone is entitled to appeal for money (I could do with a new computer), might Mr. Nagle explain why infrastructure users cannot pay for improvements the AAPA deems necessary?

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November 23, 2012 10:32 PM

IBTTA’s Pat Jones, who wants Interstates tolled to finance their maintenance, does not go far enough: All roads should be tolled. This would also help IBTTA members, as now their toll roads have to compete against government-owned “free” roads.

If only main roads were to be tolled, traffic would be encouraged to shift to minor (non-tolled) roads. This would harm both safety and the environment.

The recommendation to toll all roads was made by the National Surface Transportation Infrastructure Financing Commissionin its report published in February 2009 "Paying our Way: A New Framework for Transportation Finance”. It called for

“The transition to a new, more direct user charge system as soon as possible and [a commitment] to deploying a comprehensive system by 2020.”

The Commission did not suggest that such tolls be levied on top of existing fuel taxes, but that they should replace them. In this it echoed the 1956 legislation that established the federal financing of the Interstates by means of taxes on fuel.

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November 8, 2012 10:22 PM

What Emil writes makes a lot of sense.

But, as "there will not be sufficient public investment resources available to protect ourselves adequately against the next storms and floods or to restore and upgrade all of the key elements of our transportation, energy, telecommunications, and social infrastructure", should not the possibilities of private provision be explored?

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November 7, 2012 12:21 PM

Indeed “road and power-line maintenance isn't a fun way to spend money“ when the assets are publicly owned. Easier to kick such expenditures “down the road” and to hope that federal assistance will help in the case of break-downs. This is one of the reasons that the provision of transport infrastructure is too important to be left to politicians who often have other priorities.

Now to try to answer the questions:

What does a robust long-term infrastructure system look like? It looks like a revenue-earning facility that is maintained to ensure that it’s earnings do not collapse following predictable emergencies.

How much does it cost? As much as users are prepared to pay for the services it provides.

Where are we now in relation to such a thing? As our governments have run out of money, we are a bit closer.

How do we get where we need to go? We sell concessions to private providers, as is done in France and Britain, obligating them to provide specified services over specified time periods.

What level of

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October 29, 2012 09:11 AM

There is a simple answer to this week’s question: Federal taxpayers should not be required to support any aviation activity not directly related to defense.

Aviation users are better off than most people and should be able to manage their travel without federal subsidy.

The Federal government has a particularly poor record in this sector. Air traffic control needs to be upgraded, but government procedures are so slow that recommendations for reform tend to be outdated as soon as they are eventually agreed. In Canada, on the other hand, a privatized ATC system functions well, being paid for and managed by commercial airlines, which, in their turn, are paid by their customers.

If there are situations where subsidies to civilian aviation are justified, payments should be made by local or state governments closer to the problems, not by a federal administration which, incidentally, has ran out of other people’s money to spend.

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October 15, 2012 09:59 AM

At the risk of illustrating the saying that “fools rush in where angels fear to tread”, I’ll have a shot at answering Fawn’s questions. Hopefully, the angels will guide me to the right path.

“What do we really need?” As part of our ‘Pursuit of Happiness’ (which many Americans consider an ‘unalienable Right’), many of us desire more travel, with door-to-door speeds being as high as possible. I am not able to identify the most urgent needs, but suspect they are in urban areas.

“Where should we focus our efforts, given the limited attention of the federal government?” Because of the “limited attention [and funds] of the federal government”, and in light of the principle of subsidiarity, we should define the federal role and look to states and local authorities to deal with matters that are not of federal priority.

“What should we be talking about?” Many things. For example, how to enable transportation users to pay for what they use and get the facilities they are

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September 17, 2012 08:42 AM

Even if the federal government had the funds for a national “Infrastructure Bank”, it would be unlikely to support high-priority projects. The record shows that the current administration prefers projects that please its political friends.

Would not cash-strapped states do better to rely on transportation users to fund projects that they themselves are prepared to pay for? Raising fuel taxes dedicated to highways is one option.

If that is unacceptable, express toll lanes — with tolls varied electronically to ensure uncongested travel at all times — can be privately financed to improve mobility. As far back as 2003, our contributors Bob Poole and Ken Orski proposed building networks of such lanes in eight metropolitan areas: Los Angeles, San Francisco, Washington DC, Seattle, Houston, Dallas/Fort-Worth, Atlanta and Miami.

Express toll (“HOT”) lanes already work successfully in California, Colorado, and Minnesota, and are about to be used to relieve congestion on a segment of the Washington Capital Beltway. There seem to be o

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August 21, 2012 11:15 PM

I confess I know nothing about earmarks, but was under the impression that monies paid into the federal Highway Trust Fund were appropriated, and allocated to the states, by the legislative branch, not by the executive branch.

Those who think that $453 million is not an inconsiderable sum, might ask how it is possible that, just before an election, the executive branch is suddenly in a position to “free up” such an amount for what it deems to be “eligible projects”?

Be that as it may, does not this episode demonstrates yet again the poor management of transportation funding by the federal government, and the need to devise better ways to ensure that those who pay into transportation trust funds see their monies spent to their best advantage?

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August 9, 2012 04:06 PM

Senator Alexander is sure to know the principle of subsidiarity: That government activities should be run at the lowest practicable level, for example at a local level rather than at a national one.

The transportation sector comprises many different activities: Private companies can provide and maintain infrastructure; states can contract with such companies to provide facilities that users or voters are prepared to pay for; private insurers can test and license vehicles and drivers; local authorities can finance local roads from property taxes; and federal governments can commission and supervise research.

Despite Emil’s doubts, transferring to the states responsibility for funding transportation seems a good idea. Agreed that there are “important national purposes and interests in transportation” but these may not justify financing by a federal government. Certainly not until somebody (at the Bipartisan Policy Center?) spells out these “national purposes and interests”, and shows how federal financing could advance them better in the

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August 1, 2012 11:23 PM

Laura Barrett is sure to know that Houston’s 1924 Anti-Jitney law was also intended to eliminate competition from African Americans. It was overturned in 1994 to allow Alfredo Santos to provide shared taxi services on fixed routes, with passengers paying one dollar each for each shared ride.

In the 1990s, an attempt was made by Mexican immigrants in Los Angeles to introduce similar shared taxi services along Wilshire Boulevard. They was turned down by the LA authorities who, I am convinced, had no wish to discriminate on grounds of race or nationality. But they did want to protect government transit monopolies, so they denied the immigrants’ request.

It is good to know that Laura, and Gamliel’s Transportation Equity Network, are fighting discrimination in the provision of public transportation. I assume that they are also fighting for the rights of all safe drivers to transport willing passengers in safe vehicles.

Such services are already provided in Atlantic City (legally) and in New York City (illegally). They increase both mobility and e

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July 30, 2012 09:52 AM

I am no lawyer, but believe that the "unalienable Rights" of people to the "Pursuit of Happiness" include the right to travel, and that governments in the US have no right (subject possibly to safety concerns) to restrict transport services that willing sellers offer to willing buyers.

However, a right to travel does not necessarily give a right to travel at the expense of others.

In phrasing this question, Fawn may have been thinking of the 1994 case of Santos v. City of Houston, in which the courts overturned Houston's 1924 Anti-Jitney law enacted to protect streetcar companies from competition. Is this not similar to the issue now raised in Los Angeles, regarding bus services being suppressed to protect rail services?

I do not know about "rights [of] city and state governments ... with regard to their transportation systems", but suspect that the best way for "transportation officials [to] balance the needs of everyone while staying within their budgets" would be for governments to stay out of public transportation,

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July 24, 2012 04:47 PM

There is (to quote Emil) a “broad consensus” among respondents to this important question that motor fuel taxes no longer serve as effective prices for the use of roads. There also seems to be consensus that progress in switching to mileage-based user fees is more likely to arise at the state than at the federal level.

To help these “Hundred Flowers [to] Bloom”, might industry devise and offer alternatives to the present system? Interested states could follow Oregon and invite proposals from private firms. The states could then allow road users to voluntarily test them. Those volunteers would pay the suggested mileage-based road-use fees and, in return, be given financial inducements, such as not having to pay annual vehicle licensing fees.

Such tests would enable road users to assess important aspects of new proposals (e.g. the privacy safeguards) and new opportunities associated with them, such as mileage-based insurance premiums. And governments could assess administrative and enforcement issues.

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July 6, 2012 05:23 PM

Larry Hanley’s job is to fight for the interests of his union’s members, and he does this very successfully. Indeed, his success even contributes to transit’s woes. But he does not enhance transit’s image by asserting that it cannot survive without increased federal largesse.

Transit provides about 2 per cent of passenger mileage in the US, and receives about 20 per cent of federal surface transportation subsidies. Some might believe that even this is too much.

Transit is a local service. If local people, aided by local authorities and states, are not prepared to cover all of transit’s costs, why should federal taxpayers pay for these enhancements? Why should farmers in Ohio pay for transit systems in Hawaii and Virginia?

The Amalgamated Transit Union does a better job at running its finances than does the US Congress in running the federal government’s. The ATU’s finances are in surplus while the federal government’s are in deficit. The costs of the recently passed MAP-21 Transportation bill do not seem to be c

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June 25, 2012 02:18 PM

"Why", Fawn asks "should the transportation community kill themselves to lobby for a bill that will be obsolete almost as soon as the ink is dry?" Many who are both transportation users and taxpayers ask a slightly different question: "Why should we support a bill that is so bad?"

Its principal weakness is that it is unfunded, as too many legislators want monies spent on transportation but are unwilling to increase the taxes dedicated to it. So they seek to top up the Highway Trust Fund out of general revenues. The replacement of the traditional "user pays" by "taxpayer pays" is one of the worst ideas on highway financing to come out of congress.

Would it not be better to abandon this unfortunate bill, in the hope that the next congress will craft a better one, or return transportation funding to the states, where it belongs?

A six months' extension seems rather short. Would not a nine or twelve months' extension be necessary for the new congress to give the subject the attention it deserves?

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June 19, 2012 08:49 AM

One way to compromise is to appoint "Moderate" delegates.

Is that what the Senate Democrtes have done for the transportatioin negotiations?

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June 12, 2012 11:24 PM

I suppose we have learnt to expect Senate Democrats, who have not produced a national budget in three years, to consider “irresponsible”, a proposal “to live within our means”. And I suspect that in Pat Jones’s organization — the International Bridge, Tunnel and Turnpike Association — it is those who do not live within their means who are considered “irresponsible”. Outsiders should not take the easy path and preach that one approach is superior.

But some of us may ask why Barbara Boxer and her colleagues should determine how much travelers should pay for using roads, and how the revenues should be spent.

Senator Boxer surely understands the principle of “subsidiarity”, which postulates that government decisions should occur at the lowest possible level, for example at a state level rather than at the federal one. Devolving highway financing to the states would make it easier for road users to decide whether they want their road providers to live within their means or outside them.

Might

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May 31, 2012 12:21 PM

Might it be just possible that Phineas Baxandall found the appalling Senate Transportation bill “uncontroversial” because he did not have the time to read all of its 1600-plus pages?

I cannot think of a more generous explanation.

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May 21, 2012 11:11 AM

The principle of “subsidiarity” postulates that government decisions should occur at the lowest practicable level, for example locally rather than nationally. This principle suggests that it is indeed time to relieve the federal government of the burden of financing transportation infrastructure, and of the onus of having to raise the required fees or taxes, and return these responsibilities to the states. The following reasons come to mind:

1. The purpose of federal financing — completion of the Interstate Highway System — has been virtually achieved, and it is difficult to identify other advantages from federal financing.

2. The disadvantages of federal financing — increased costs and intrusive regulation — are evident and substantial.

3. Congress, unable to increase the taxes dedicated to roads, seeks to use general funds to finance some of the transportation expenditures it considers necessary, thus abandoning the US traditional “user pays” principle for roads.

4. Congress keeps deferring long-term

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May 1, 2012 11:21 AM

“Environmental streamlining” is difficult, but Representative DeFazio’s comments provide an easy answer to the question “How can conferees find a happy compromise?” The happiest compromise would be to abandon these unfortunate bills and postpone transportation legislation to a new congress.

Defazio is quoted as saying that he would support restrictions that would result in “fewer cars on that road”. The obvious way to get fewer cars on roads is to impoverish the populace, and the current administration is already working to that end, presumably with the support of Representative DeFazio.

As economic growth is encouraged by higher mobility, a more helpful approach would be to remove travel restrictions that do not demonstrate proven benefits. Streetcars on paved roads — a nineteenth century technology for which most users and local authorities do not wish to pay — are more costly and less productive than modern transit modes, such as high-frequency buses.

People who seek to spend federal funds to encourage

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April 24, 2012 12:04 AM

Three aspects of the legislation described by Ken Orski seem of major concern:

First, the Senate bill (and also the reported House draft) rely on general revenues to finance desired expenditures, thus abandoning the traditional “user pays” principle for financing surface transport facilities.

Second, I am not able to digest a document consisting of “1,600 plus” pages, and suspect that few — if any — congress-people have read it.

Third, the discouragement of tolling and private financing.

These deficiencies strengthen the suspicion that transport is too important to be left to the vicissitudes of politics, and would be better provided by private markets, as are food, water, and other necessities.

Such a change could not be made quickly. But might it be reasonable to hope that no deal will be made this year, and that a future congress will legislate a path to turn back transport financing to the states, some of which would require travelers to pay for what they use? Might not the private sector then be able to p

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April 16, 2012 09:34 AM

Fawn uses the terms “Driving Tax” and “VMT Fee” without distinguishing between them. Replacing the federal fuel tax by a “Driving Tax”, with all the revenues going to Washington, for allocation by the federal government, seems to make as much sense as sending all the revenues from telephone calls to the cash-strapped Feds. Is it really a good idea?

But replacing the fuel tax by a mileage–based fee is surely a good idea. Electronically-collected fees are familiar to the millions who use devices such as “E-ZPass”. The fees can be sent directly to those who provide the facilities being used — whether public or private entities — eliminating entirely the need for federal financing.

The federal government got into financing modern roads by means of a fuel tax mainly to finance the Interstate Highway System. But now that that system is virtually complete, federal involvement in highway financing no longer seems necessary.

Fawn asks: “Should vehicles be taxed differently based on their

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March 29, 2012 09:22 PM

I cannot better Patrick’s splendid exhortation to move from the Dark Age of government highway financing to the Renaissance of toll roads. But maybe he will allow me to nit-pick his children’s description of our current highway problems as a “First World Problem.”

Patrick's children obviously know that, in the Cold War period, the “First World” consisted of the wealthy, capitalist, countries, and the “Second World” of the communist ones, dominated by the Soviet Union. While the US today still has many First World characteristics, does not the socialistic ownership, management and financing of most of its roads belong in the Second World rather than in the First?

Kudos to Patrick and the IBTTA for their efforts to steer US roads from the Dark Ages of socialism to the Renaissance of an all-tolled US highway network, in which transport services are provided — by both public and private entities — in response to direct consumer payments, rather than in response to deals made by governments at taxpayer expense.

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March 19, 2012 10:13 AM

Whom you are calling "conservative"? If you are referring to people who, like yourself, do not promise to finance wasteful projects with money you do not have, then of course many in the Senate qualify for such a title. They would oppose this unfortunate bill if only because it involves the use of general revenues to top up the Highway Trust Fund, thus conflicting with the "user pays" principle which has been traditional in the US for financing infrastructure.

Those of us (like myself) who cannot afford to finance favorite projects, seek money from other quarters. The Senate bill fails this test also. While lacking the funds to finance the transport projects senators deem necessary, it actually penalizes private investment in roads. Does one have to be "conservative" to encourage the private provision of public roads?

The issue is surely not just "general anxiety about federal investment", as much as unwillingness to raise the fuel taxes dedicated to highway funding. Is that a “conservati

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March 15, 2012 09:43 AM

Mayor Villaraigosa is wise to seek transit money in Washington, because his own voters would never pay for his “mega public transportation” projects. But in Washington he can find support from community organizers such as Laura Barrett who are expert at persuading members of congress to appropriate money they do not have for projects that customers do not want to pay for.

“Is it appropriate to focus so much attention on public transportation”? Yes, as that is where the lobbying money is. And as building rail is so much more profitable than building roads, most of the lobbying is for rail.

Does that mean that only bankrupt governments, urged on by lobbyists, can finance public transport? In the USA this may well be so, as most urban areas prohibit public transport by shared taxis or associations of minibus-owners that can offer unsubsidized, high-frequency, seated services. Such services are common worldwide and some are to be found even in the US, e.g. in Atlantic City (legally) and in New York City (illegally).

If legalized and regula

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March 8, 2012 10:21 PM

There seems to be agreement that the federal financing of state roads has not worked well in recent years. Those advocating reauthorization seem to assume that it might work better in the future. But is not this rather like Samuel Johnson’s definition of a second marriage? “A triumph of hope over experience”?

The current legislative proposals do not solve problems inherent in federal financing, including

— inability to focus on projects of federal interest;

— inability to

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February 29, 2012 04:43 PM

“What” asks Fawn “would happen if there never was another 5-year bill?” Does this not depend on the circumstances?

A continuing series of federal short-term extensions would be harmful, as infrastructure providers cannot plan in the absence of medium-term assurances of funding availability. Long-term assurances would be much better, but not possible under existing five-year congressional horizons.

How about an orderly switch from federal to state financing, as was envisaged in the 1956 legislation that set up the federal financing of the now-completed Interstate Highway System? This would eliminate federal fuel taxes in stages, so as to leave sufficient in the Highway Trust Fund to complete projects already in the pipeline. But new expenditures would then be taken up by the states, which could raise road-use charges to the extent desired by their voters, most of whom are road users who are prepared to pay for what they use and expect to get what they are prepared to pay for. States short of road money could toll their facilities or contract

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February 23, 2012 11:19 AM

Is transport infrastructure “campaign fodder”? Not at the federal level. Some 98% of person-miles are provided on roads, yet federal priorities seem focused on rail-based services. It is hard to accuse the federal administration of promising to provide what transport users want.

Hence Jack Schenendorf’s pertinent observations that “party politics … are likely … to fall short of addressing national needs”. Yet he opposes “devolution … that would elevate state and local interests over the national interest.” But state interests already dominate the allocation of federal transport funding, which enables them to get other states to fund their weak projects. Is there not a national interest in transport users paying for the facilities they use? There are other national interests in transport, such as standardization and research, but it is not clear that these require federal funding of infrastructure.

Emil Frankel points out that a reauthorization bill is unlikely to be passed by this congress. Does not the

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February 13, 2012 10:24 AM

“Where”, asks Fawn, “does safety factor in to this conversation?” As the federal government reduces safety by “blood for oil” policies encouraging the use of lightweight cars, the safety factor illustrates the unfortunate unintended consequences of federal interventions in transportation, which already increase US highway fatalities by some 2,000 a year.

A rational federal government seeking to reduce the consumption of fossil fuel would raise the taxes on it. And a rational federal government, seeking to finance transport activities with money it does not have, would confine its spending to projects of specific federal importance, and leave to governments at lower levels the financing of local matters, such as transit, cycling and walking programs.

So, if governments behaved rationally, “Transit groups, along with pedestrian and cycling advocates”, would focus their estimable activities on local governments.

But, if governments behaved rationally, what would transportation bloggers have to write about?

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February 8, 2012 11:35 AM

While admiring Laura Barrett’s efforts to ensure that the new transportation bill includes “operating assistance” for transit services, I’d like to ask her how she justifies forcing federal taxpayers to pay any part of these costs.

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January 30, 2012 09:10 AM

Of course there is “good” and “bad” spending. Many of us consider spending “good” when the benefits from the expenditures exceed the costs.

So, yes, there can be “good” and “bad” spending on infrastructure, but the federal government seems to have problems identifying the “good”. It was, for example, pushing for a national “High-Speed Rail” network, while its Federal Railroad Administration was unable to provide even one cost-benefit analysis to show that the benefits from such a system would exceed the costs. This suggests that the financing of transportation infrastructure is too important to be left to politicians.

In our market economy, we try to ensure that benefits from investments exceed their costs by getting customers — not the government — to pay the costs, as in the cases of necessities such as food, water, telecommunications, and even self-financing toll bridges and roads.

Many of our urban areas suffer from excessive traffic congestion. Express toll

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January 17, 2012 09:11 AM

"What", Fawn asks, "would make policymakers more receptive to high-speed rail?"

We all like to travel by train, particularly when the journeys are from station to station. As train users tend to come from the higher income groups, willingness of travelers to pay all the costs of their rail service would influence those policymakers who prefer to redistribute wealth from the richer to the poorer.

One reason that high-speed rail costs are so high is that rail systems have to cover all their "track" costs. So another way to make policymakers more receptive to high-speed rail would be to invent a high-speed rail system that could share its track with other fee-paying users.

Of course, rubber-tired cars and buses already have this capability, so high-speed buses use only small fractions of the capacities of the freeways they use. This is one reason that Fawn can travel by bus from Washington DC to New York for about $20, while having to pay about six-fold for the Amtrak service, which may even be subsidized.

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December 12, 2011 12:03 PM

I’ll try to answer Fawn’s five questions:

“How important is this transit benefit?” Shielding $2,760 a year from taxed income can be worth some $300 to $1,000 a year to those who pay income tax.

“Would it do any harm to extend it?” Yes, Gerard Bridi surely knows that the savings to the few receiving these transport subsidies are at the expense of the many who do not.

“Why has it gotten lost in the congressional shuffle?” Possibly because the federal congress, which has trouble managing its workloads, now tries to focus on national issues, rather than on local ones.

“Is mass transit really at a disadvantage with respect to cars and automobiles?” It can be at a disadvantage in offering slower and less convenient services. It is at an advantage in getting some 20% of federal surface transport subsidies while providing less than 2% of traveler miles.

“Are there other ways to encourage mass-transit commuting?” Public transport can be encouraged b

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November 24, 2011 04:05 PM

Phineas

I am not sure that I understand your transport strategy, but it is good to know that you oppose “drill to drive”.

Whether or not “Roads Pay for Themselves”, would you accept, as a general proposition, that all federal transport subsidies should be phased out?

As you also oppose “user pays” policies for transport, would it be in order to ask you to explain who (if not users) should pay for transport and who (if not users) should decide what should be provided?

Happy Thanksgiving to all!

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November 21, 2011 09:37 PM

Those who try to apply market principles to transportation might reply to Fawn’s five questions as follows:

“Does the ‘Users pay’ model still hold up for transportation?” I hope so, as the alternative of “taxpayers pay” is likely to be worse for those who travel or send goods.

“Is there a better way to pay for infrastructure?” I cannot think of one.

“Can users fully fund the roads, bridges, and railways they use?” In the US, frequently not. But a more relevant question might be “Should people have the right to use roads, bridges and railways that they are not prepared to pay for?” If they have that right, then others have an obligation to provide, an obligation some might not accept.

“How much should users be on the hook for?” In a market economy they generally pay for what they get, and get what they are prepared to pay for.

“What about taxpayers?” Taxpayers should expect to pay for government services, such

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November 17, 2011 04:38 PM

I find it difficult to agree with Bill Lind that road transport in the US is heavily subsidized,

However, be that as it may, would the American Conservative Center for Public Transportation agree with me that the federal government, which has run out of money, should phase out all subsidies for US transport?

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November 14, 2011 08:54 PM

I’ve known a number of bus drivers, including Dave Wetzel (an expert on land taxes) who became Deputy Director of Transport for London. I have much respect for them, but don’t agree that transit fares should be treated as taxes.

Fares are paid for a purpose, and payers expect something specific in return. Taxes are paid to help meet government’s general expenses, e.g., to subsidize rail service that displaces bus service, as happened in Washington DC. And it is indeed harder to raise taxes than fares, because most would rather pay for a specific service than pay a tax.

Transit riders in most US cities often pay too much, because regulations designed to protect unionized services deny travelers the alternatives of high-frequency, low-cost, seated, transport services provided by shared taxis or minibuses.

Such services are provided, without subsidy, in Atlantic City (legally); in parts of New York City (illegally); and in numerous urban areas worldwide. They also generate employment: Directly to those providing the service, and indirectly by i

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November 9, 2011 11:02 AM

Road fatalities could be reduced in two ways:

First, Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) regulations already increase US road fatalities by some 2,000 a year. Environmental movements are notoriously indifferent to the preservation of human life (their objections to DDT result in millions of preventable deaths from Malaria) but their objections should be over-ruled and CAFE regulations abolished. Heavy vehicles are safer than light ones even in single-vehicle accidents. Taxes on fuel are a better way to discourage fuel use, and the revenues could top-up dedicated highway funds.

Second, allow insurers to test and license the vehicles and their operators they insure, as is done in maritime transport, where safety is taken very seriously. In contrast to local authorities, insurers have compelling financial incentives to reduce accidents. For example, Maryland was found to be not enforcing its regulations requiring those convicted of drunk driving to have alcohol detectors in their vehicles. Insurance companies, with $millions at stake, would be much more likely to enf

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October 31, 2011 08:40 AM

Speaker Boehner’s suggestion is a clever short-term idea but an extraordinarily bad one for the long term.

Of course more oil drilling is desirable. It would create useful employment and reduce US dependency on imported oil. But any new revenues arising from drilling should be spent on priorities that cannot be financed otherwise. Transport infrastructure can be financed out of user charges, e.g. fares, tolls or dedicated fuel taxes.

Topping up the federal Highway Trust Fund (HTF) out of general revenues is likely to destroy the traditional “user pays” principle that has governed US infrastructure financing for many years. A move from “user pays” to “taxpayer pays” would result in expenditures on infrastructure being limited by budget considerations and governed by political preferences rather than by the choices of infrastructure users.

If the federal congress cannot see its way to enabling users to finance its HTF, its proper course is surely to wind it down (as envisaged in the 1956 legislation that set up the H

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October 17, 2011 09:11 AM

Ray LaHood is reported to be a particularly nice family man and I hope he enjoys many happy years after retiring from government work.

But his policy of reducing vehicle-miles of travel per person, to the extent that it is achieved, is unfortunate in that it reduces both mobility and employment.

My one wish to be granted before the Secretary leaves his job? As one who prefers employment to unemployment, my wish is that he establishes a transportation policy that helps people to undertake as many vehicle-miles of travel as they wish to pay for.

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September 28, 2011 06:23 PM

Is not the basic premise of the question — that spending more money can significantly reduce urban traffic congestion— a bit superficial? Calculations made for central London indicate that road capacity there would have to be multiplied some twenty times to accommodate all the traffic that seeks to be there with neither congestion nor road pricing.

Free markets deal with excessive congestion by raising prices, and the resulting revenues can then be used to expand the congested facilities.

Most roads are not in the market economy, but there are remedies that can be applied even when governments run them. Bob Poole and Ken Orski, both respected members of this panel, proposed creating urban networks of HOT lanes that would be priced electronically at levels designed to reduce congestion to desired levels. They reckoned that such networks in eight US cities could be provided for $60 billion, much of which would paid for by the users.

The federal government has tried to distance itself from distance-based road–use charges, but determined local a

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September 19, 2011 09:34 AM

Many providers of bus services pay federal taxes on their earnings. To use these revenues to subsidize competing air (and railroad) services makes no sense, except to the spenders in Washington DC who have brought the federal economy to its present condition.

You ask: “When should the federal government step in to make sure everyone has access to at least one long-distance travel option?” As the federal government has run out of money, is not one rational answer "As soon as it balances its budget"?

How about addressing the problem from the other side, and asking whether federal budgets should subsidize any transport services?

Subsidies for local services should surely be paid for locally. And, thanks to electronics, financially viable long-distance services, even roads, can be financed commercially, by public or private investment. Auctioning landing and take-off slots in congested airports could help to finance appropriate facility expansion.

And why should federal taxpayers be required to finance financially unviable t

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August 9, 2011 04:22 PM

Labor unions can influence transport policies profoundly. Were not the dockers’ unions a major factor in the rise of container ships, that caused so many of their members to lose their lucrative jobs?

Labor unions have succeeded in all but eliminating public transport services provided by shared taxis and by associations of independent minibus owners. These provide unsubsidized, high-frequency, seated, service all over the world, e.g. the “Sherut” shared taxis in Israel and the “Service “ services in other Middle East countries.

In the US such services seem to be provided only in Atlantic City (legally) and in New York City (illegally). Their re-introduction in other US areas could improve employment significantly — not only to those directly employed, but also to those offered improved access to jobs and other destinations.

In highway construction, Davis-Bacon regulations and Project Labor Agreements substantially raise costs and inhibit employment.

Labor unions can be praised for improving the conditions of their m

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August 1, 2011 08:50 AM

Fawn did not mention that some subsidies paid under the Essential Air Service program exceed $3,000 per-ticket, and that one of the issues in dispute is whether per- ticket subsidies should be capped at $1,000. Presumably some of these high costs are due to the union rules that are also part of the dispute.

In contrast, Papua New Guinea, an aviation pioneer but not the world's richest society, can (or used to) operate its numerous village airports with no subsidy whatsoever.

This “teachable moment” illustrates not only the wastes perpetuated on federal taxpayers by congress, but also the absurdity of the federal government having the power to shut down aviation services because of disputes over subsidies and over the union rules that probably contribute to them.

As the federal government has run out of other people’s money to spend, some might respond that the “fair compromise” is to phase out the whole federal program and let the local people raise the funds for the services they themselves deem “essential.”

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July 18, 2011 08:23 AM

The traveling public is rational in the sense that trips are generally made only when their benefits to travelers exceed their costs to travelers. When people travel less, it is probably either because trip benefits drop or because trip costs (in terms of time or money) rise.

But is the Curtin article rational? It claims that travel “per capita” declined 10.2 per cent from 1995 to 2005 in Atlanta, and 15.2 per cent in Houston. I doubt this and wonder what the authors were comparing.

Fawn referred to the well-known finding that travelers seem to limit the time they spend on urban travel. But the implication of such a limit is that travelers try to use the fastest travel mode they can afford which, for most urban trips, is usually the private car. So it is not rational to suggest that travelers constrained by time would choose to switch to slower modes, like walking or transit.

No! These alleged findings do not support the conclusion “that public officials should actually fund” non-car transport activity.

Nor should they fund i

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July 5, 2011 10:16 PM

It is difficult to answer this question because there seem to be as many “environmental arguments” as there are environmentalists, some of whom I count as my friends. And I am grateful to them for their role in ridding London and other cities of the soot in which they (the cities) used to be covered, and, more importantly, of the associated life-shortening diseases.

On the other hand, how does one deal with those (e.g. in the EPA) who consider any environmental benefit, however small, worth any cost, however large? Or those who promote “blood for oil”, by advocating the downsizing of vehicles at the cost of thousands of additional fatalities on US roads? Or those responsible for millions of avoidable deaths from Malaria because of objections to DDT? Do not some environmentalists practice what seems to be a dangerous religion, complete with its human sacrifices?

Yes, as David Pickeral points out, reduced traffic congestion can improve the environment. But should not those who sup with environmentalists use long spoons?

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June 28, 2011 07:23 PM

If President Eisenhower were alive today I would congratulate him on triggering the completion of the 46,876-miles US Interstate Highway System (IHS), one of the greatest public works achievements of all time.

I would also pay tribute to his wisdom in persuading Congress to include in the legislation provision for winding down the federal Highway Trust Fund on completion of the IHS. That fund was established to enable road users to pay for the IHS, but has now become a vehicle for forcing road users to pay for non-road activities that are of little benefit to them.

Furthermore, the federal congress has neither the time nor the money to fund infrastructure. Instead of “reauthorizing” it, Congress can wind down the fund — and the fuel taxes that feed it — and turn back transportation funding to the states, as originally envisaged by Eisenhower.

How could officials from different states cooperate without federal guidance? Transportation users are fortunate that John Horsley and his able staff at the American Association of State Highway a

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June 21, 2011 05:33 PM

Fawn –

Thank you for publishing the illuminating guest comment from John Robert Smith. I have three questions about it:

a) Where is the evidence that Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor operations are “profitable”?

b) On what basis does John Robert assume that the federal government — which has run out of money — will bail out private interests that choose to invest in rail privatization?

c) Would Reconnecting America support such bailouts?

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June 20, 2011 09:00 AM

Chairman Mica’s welcome initiative offers a new twist to the debate about Amtrak. Contracting out rail passenger services is a good idea, and for the reason he gave: If private firms can do it better, or cheaper, why should they not be given the chance? Why not indeed? Some might even ask why Amtrak itself does not seek outside bids for all of its services.

Another advantage of contracting out services is that the bids would give us credible information about which of Amtrak’s services could be made financially viable.

Those of us who favor “integrated transport planning” might ask why

the "multi-modal" folks in the Department of Transportation do not go further, and devise bidding processes that would accept bids for high-quality passenger services being provided by other modes. For example, as demonstrated in the Washington to New York corridor: For many journeys, buses on uncongested roads can offer more frequent, cheaper and faster door-to-door seated services than can be provided by steel-wheeled trains on fixe

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June 1, 2011 05:22 PM

Douglas Waggoner wants roads near big cities improved, yet is content to “leave … politicians to decide” how much to spend. Why? Why not leave it to transport users to decide? There are plenty of road providers eager and able to provide congestion-relieving roads to road users willing to pay the costs, either by means of tolls or by topping up dedicated road funds.

Meanwhile Senator Sherrod Brown takes the “political” route and seeks to spend scarce federal funds “to expand public transit and rail services” to please the “environmentalists, domestic-manufacturing advocates, unions, and the transportation community”.

If Douglas leaves transportation decisions to the political class, he is likely to get the results advocated by Senator Brown and the persuasive Laura Barrett. Would not Douglas better achieve his objective by helping to restore the “user pays” tradition to transport?

Incidentally, where is the evidence that “mass transit and rail” … reduce traffic congestion an

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May 23, 2011 09:00 AM

Democrats are nice people. They love their spouses; their children; their dogs; and their Priuses. They let me see their New Yorkers. So why are their transportation policies not trusted?

One reason might be that they expect federal taxpayers to support hugely expensive policies without assessing their benefits. For example, the Federal Railroad Administration cannot show us a single cost-benefit analysis to support its costly “High-Speed Rail” projects.

So of course policymakers should take a more serious look at privately financed toll road systems. But they first need to give more power to the states. One way to do this would be to “turn back” highway financing to the states, which could then increase private sector roles.

States are closer to taxpayers and travelers, and cannot (yet) print money to avoid budget deficits. So many are more inclined to verify before they spend.

Private investors, who spend their own money, have even stronger incentives to verify. They supply us with necessities such as food, water, an

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