The Smart Growth movement has long demonstrated a keen understanding of the importance of rhetoric. Terms like livability, transportation choice, and even “smart growth” enable advocates to argue by assertion rather than by evidence. Smart Growth rhetoric thrives in a political culture that rewards the clever catchphrase over drab data analysis, but often fails to identify the risks for cities inherent in their war against “auto-dependency” and promotion of large-scale mass transit to boost the “sustainability” of communities.
Yet in pursuing this transit-friendly future political leaders rarely confront this inescapable reality: public transportation is fiscally unsustainable and utterly dependent on the very car-drivers transit boosters so often excoriate. For example, a major source of funding for transit comes from taxes paid by motorists, which include principally fuel taxes but also sales taxes, registration fees and transportation grants. The amount of tax diversion varies from place to place, but whether the metro region is small or large the subsidies are significant. In Gainesville, Florida – a college town of 120,000 – the regional transit system received 80 percent of the city's local option gas tax in 2008. In New York City, the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority diverts 68 percent of its toll revenues to subways and buses.
In addition to local subsidies, state and federal agencies fund transit operations with revenue from gas taxes and other motorist user fees. In 2007 transit agencies received $10.7 billion from the federal Highway Trust Fund, and that is a conservative figure since another $11.7 billion was diverted for vaguely phrased “non-highway purposes.”
In contrast, fare box recovery doesn’t come close to covering operating expenses. Nor can transit pay for its own capital outlay. Last year the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority moved to dedicate toll revenue and toll bonds to cover half the cost of the $5.26 billion Dulles Metrorail project.
The implications of transit’s auto-dependency are serious. Americans drove 11 billion fewer miles between 2008 and 2009, and for each mile not traveled local, state, and federal taxes were not collected. Without these anticipated revenues, transit systems across the country have suffered and, ironically, those hit hardest are the people who are dependent on public transportation ,that is in most cities, the poor and the young.
In D.C., transit riders are being warned by Metro officials to expect half-hour waits for buses and trains and more crowded rides as they cut services and lay off positions to close a $40 million budget shortfall. Santa Clara County’s Valley Transit Authority has announced plans to reduce bus service by 8 percent and light rail service by 6.5 percent. In Arizona, both Tempe and Phoenix face major cuts that will lengthen wait times and eliminate routes. Even as demand for transit increases in states like Minnesota, the decline in funding is leading to major readjustments in service.
The situation is so dire in New York City – with by far the most extensive transit system in the country – that advocates used students as props to protest service cuts caused by a $400 million budget shortfall. Though transit receives funding from other sources, there can be no mistaking the key role played by motorists.
The decline in driving can be attributed largely to the economic downturn and increased unemployment, but even when the recession ends transit agencies will face an uncertain funding future. New technologies are making automobiles cleaner and more fuel efficient, which will allow people to drive more while paying and polluting less. If auto makers meet new federal standards, cars will soon be achieving 35.5 miles per gallon instead of today’s 27.5 mpg average. Economic growth continues to disperse and there has been a strong uptick in telecommuting.
But perhaps the biggest threat to the future of auto-dependent transit is the very “cause” that seeks to establish it as the preferred travel mode. The planning doctrine called Smart Growth with its rationale of sustainable development is growing in popularity in urban areas across the country. Local officials are enamored with visions of auto-light cities where the buses are full, sidewalks are crowded and there are more bicycles on the road than cars.
Beneath the appealing rhetoric of Smart Growth rests the assumption that automobiles are intrinsically bad and that public policy should be directed at restricting their use. Rarely do policymakers weigh the automobile’s many benefits and the improving technologies that are mitigating its negative environmental impact. Even rarer is discussion of whether transit can realistically match the convenience and flexibility of the automobile for both individuals and families.
Distracted perhaps by pictures of ornate transit hubs and shiny rail cars, many policy makers fail to focus on developing a fiscally sustainable plan for public transportation. They miss the fundamental problem that anything heavily subsidized –particularly in a budget constrained atmosphere – is, by definition, unsustainable. (To the extent roads are subsidized, it breaks down to about a half-penny per passenger mile; transit subsidies are 100 times more than driving subsidies.) Ideally, user fees would cover all expenses of all transportation modes, including driving.
A responsible policy goal should be for transit users to put their fair share in the fare box. However, given the current tax diversion imbalance, local officials should at least target a near-term goal for fare box recovery of 85 percent of costs instead of its current one-third average. This will reduce both their fatal auto-dependency and the instability that comes when external revenue sources are impacted by external factors like an economic downturn.
Transit agencies should also right-size their bus fleets. Despite visions of large 55-passenger vehicles filled to capacity with contented commuters, only a small portion of routes in any urban area can fill these big box buses even during certain peak times. A smaller sized fleet would be not only less expensive but also more flexible, allowing cities to adjust routes and increase headways for greater service. It would also have a smaller carbon footprint.
Finally, responsible policymakers should suspend most of their plans to build rail transit. In addition to routinely running over-budget, rail transit- outside of a few cities such as Washington DC and New York- simply does not carry many passengers relative to automobiles to justify its enormous operating expenses . The Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority, for example, spent $55.5 million in operating expenses in 2008, recovering just $8.6 million from passenger fares and costing taxpayers an average of $5.88 per trip.
Rubber tire transit is more efficient compared to rail as a service to those needing public transportation. Santa Clara’s operating expenses per vehicle revenue mile were 25 percent less for bus than for light rail. Additionally, bus transit is far more flexible, easier to expand and less disruptive in the construction phase.
Essentially, policymakers need to see transit as a service with an important but limited role to play in most urban regions. With jobs and more activities spreading to the suburbs and exurbs – a process often accelerated by economically disruptive urban policies, cities should focus transit on a limited number of central core commuters as well as those people who cannot drive. Unfortunately, such goals are too modest for planners who envision transit as the catalyst for large scale social engineering and who have little concern for their regions’ economic bottom line.
The dirty little secret remains that public transportation would collapse without the automobile. It will remain unsustainable as long as it remains dependent on that which public policy is trying to discourage. Smart Growth rhetoric makes for great campaign literature but not for smart decision-making. Responsible officials should question the underlying assumptions about automobiles and begin reconsidering the fiscal calculus that underlies transit policy.
Ed Braddy is the executive director of the American Dream Coalition, a non-profit public policy organization that examines transportation and land-use policies at the local level. The ADC’s annual conference will be held this year on June 10-12 in Orlando, Florida.