Stacking the Political Deck to Fix a Non-Existent Transportation Crisis
The next big-ticket item on Joe Biden’s wish list is an infrastructure program. And not just any infrastructure program, but one that will cost trillions of dollars.
To help grease the wheels of an enormous infrastructure plan, the old and discredited (and corrupt) practice of congressional earmarks is returning…with bipartisan support.
Politically, it looks like everything is in place to get a huge, multi-year infrastructure deal done. But skeptics, like transportation expert Randal O’Toole, say don’t buy the hype. There is no infrastructure crisis demanding trillions of dollars of deficit spending.
What we do have is a politically driven misallocation of existing funds. And opening the spending taps won’t solve the real transportation issues: the need for maintenance, and investments in the kids of transportation most people actually want to use…
Funding transportation out of user fees [rather than congressional spending] not only ensures better maintenance; it also encourages more efficient and innovative transportation. Tax subsidies shield Amtrak and urban transit agencies from the need to be efficient, innovative, or responsive to competition. Amtrak spends four times as much money moving a passenger one mile as the airlines; urban transit spends five times as much moving a passenger-mile as private automobiles.
Any infrastructure bill should focus on the kinds of transportation that people actually use, rather than what we wish they would use, and it should fund transportation facilities primarily out of user fees, not tax dollars. Unfortunately, this is not what “Amtrak Joe” Biden and a Democrat-led Congress are intent on doing. Instead, they want to spend vast amounts of money building new but obsolete infrastructure that few people will use. A prime example is high-speed rail, which may look modern but in fact was rendered obsolete in the 1950s when Boeing introduced the 707 and Douglas the DC-8.
O’Toole writes that the coronavirus pandemic demonstrated that some modes of transportation – vehicles on highways — are far more resilient than others:
Instead of trying to get people out of their cars, a policy that has never succeeded, Congress should adopt policies that make automobiles and highways cleaner, more efficient, and more resilient.
The political incentives, for now, are all on the other side of the transportation ledger. More money for collective transport, less for individual mobility.
Image Credit: By Jericho [CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons