The Historical Foundation of America's Transit Disinvestment

The other day, a new Shinkansen bullet line was added in Japan, the first to operate high-speed rail in 1964. The U.S. has yet to build is first line. More troubling is the decay we've seen in the relatively new metro lines, like D.C. Metro and BART.

4 minute read

April 7, 2016, 9:00 AM PDT

By Irvin Dawid

University of Maryland School of Public Policy Professor John Rennie Short begins his piece in The Conversation by looking at the recent problems plaguing the 40-year-old D.C. Metro Rail that resulted in a one-day shut down last month, and the recent announcement that it's possible that future shutdowns "could span six months."

A system that opened to such fanfare in 1976 is now crumbling. It is a depressingly familiar story that is not limited to urban public transport. The U.S. has a major and growing infrastructure gap – though chasm is a more appropriate metaphor.

The sad state of American public infrastructure, in its highways, bridges and tunnels, rail lines, and gas and water pipelines is well-documented, particularly by a widely-seen 60-Minutes piece in November 2014. In this piece, Short focuses mainly on one declining type of American infrastructure, urban public transit, and asks, "What went wrong?" He answers with four reasons, though clearly more apply.

The first is the early and continuing embrace of the private car as a form of urban transport. In Europe, expensive gas and restrictive land use measures kept people in dense cities, and urban growth followed along the lines of mass transit, reinforcing and consolidating their use.

By contrast, "U.S. growth spread across a landscape of freeways and motorway exits, encouraged by federal investment in the national highway system in the 1950s," writes Short, though he doesn't mention the pre-WWII land patterns which were less auto-oriented.

As low-density suburban sprawl spread, public transport became less viable. New suburbs and Sunbelt cities constructed in the last half of the 20th century were built around the private automobile.

Unlike Europe, where most public transit was publicly owned, in the U.S, like the much larger railroads, was privately owned and operated, laying the foundation for the next reason:

Second, as cities were designed to meet the needs of the motorist, mass transit systems that had been owned by private companies were abandoned or effectively dismantled in the late 1940s and throughout the 1950s because they were losing money. 

As a result, many mass transit systems were taken over by municipalities. This led to a high-cost, low-revenue system dependent on the vagaries of federal, state and city funding. Meanwhile, car drivers were economic free riders, not charged for the social costs of their accidents, pollution and congestion.

The free ride extends well beyond the externalities of social and environmental costs, but to actual infrastructure costs which were designed by President Eisenhower and the Congress to be paid entirely by user fees.

December's FAST Act, the five-year reauthorization of the Highway Trust Fund, relies on "pay-fors," less charitably referred to as "gimmicks," to make up the balance between gas tax receipts and transportation spending. The transfer from the General Fund to the Highway Trust Fund, i.e., a subsidy, largely to drivers, amounts to a whopping $70 billion, and this comes after over $60 billion in General Fund transfers since 2008, when the gas tax no longer covered highway costs.

The refusal of Congress, and until recently, the president, to support increasing the gas tax or other user fees leads to the third reason for decline in public transit, and all transportation, infrastructure, for that matter: the need for continual infrastructure investment. It's no longer 1993, but the U.S. relies on a 1993-level gas tax and whatever "pay-fors" Congress can agree to fund federal transportation spending. 

The final reason goes back to the first, the American embrace of the private automobile at the expense of public transit.

Many of us, it seems, have lost faith in the public realm. The private car is the embodiment of U.S. individualism. The decline of our cities' infrastructure is one expression of loss of faith in the public realm as a place of beauty and efficiency and an embodiment of what [Philip Kennicott, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Art and Architecture Critic of The Washington Post] refers to as “our anger and our pessimism.”

Fortunately, Short ends his "conversation" on a positive note—America's recent embrace of cities, not only by well-off millennials who can afford to live in them, but a more favorable view of density and perhaps a diminution of the American love of automobile ownership.

And as more people want to live in cities in dense walkable neighborhoods, the demand for public transport is increasing.

And millennials lack their parents' and grandparents' love affair with the automobile. We may be at the cusp of a generational shift in attitudes to the car and mass transit. Cities and cars were never a good fit, something more people appear to be realizing.

Hat tip to LA Metro Library — Transportation Headlines

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