One of the places a freeway might be built. Photo by Mr. T in DC on Flickr.
The Washington Examiner’s opinion section features five separate fusillades against transit, spending on transit, and the entire idea, incomprehensible to the authors, that some people can happily live their lives primarily getting around using transit and on foot and might actually enjoy it.
Several, by “conservative” writers and crossposted from “conservative” national publications, follow the typical pattern of such anti-transit screeds, filled with “scare quotes” and namecalling toward people who disagree as “pointy-headed” “bureaucrats,” “functionaries” and more to defend government spending on modes of travel they personally prefer.
An Examiner editorial criticizes the Obama administration’s meager extra spending on transit as a “war against cars” (of course). The editorial board can’t stand spending on “expensive high-speed rail, unprofitable low-
speed Amtrak, and other forms of government-subsidized mass transit” ... as opposed to expensive freeways, unprofitable arterials, and other forms of government-subsidized roads.
Scare-quoted words include “investing” (money on transportation projects) and “livability,” which apparently is code for “using government funding to force people now living in the suburbs to move back into densely packed central cities where they would have to depend upon mass transit rather than privately owned vehicles.” That’s instead of the previous policy of using government funding to force people to live in places where they would have to depend on cars even to cross a street without being killed.
That’s far from the most comic of the faux-free market arguments, where people actually seem able to argue with a straight face that the government spending money on one mode of transportation is totally just markets at work while spending public money on another mode is socialism.
The most extravagant argument comes from Fred Barnes of the Weekly Standard, who actually writes this:
If the law of supply and demand were operative, we’d see a smarter approach to improving transportation in America. The supply of cars would create a demand for more roads and bridges to accommodate them, just as food lines outside a grocery store create demand for more grocery stores.
Once again, the government is not building grocery stores. It is building the roads. And Barnes may not have noticed, but in grocery stores, you pay for the food you want. Last calls road pricing a way “to force drivers to put a dollar value on their commute.” Like… in the grocery stores, where there’s a dollar value on the food?
Meanwhile, Barnes obviously hasn’t been on the Northeast Corridor Amtrak trains, or any of the subway systems in dense cities where people are clamoring for more trains and better service. Why doesn’t that create demand for transit programs?
Because Barnes is sure they’re not useful to anyone. “The simple fact is most people prefer to travel by car because it’s convenient, which mass transit rarely is,” he claims. Rarely in his experience, perhaps. Sure, driving is more convenient for many people in many cases. Transit is more convenient for other people in other cases.
Barnes argues that all the transit hasn’t taken cars off the road, and that transit’s mode share has declined. I have to assume he’s just being disingenuous and trying to feed red meat to his base, because he must be smart enough to recognize that if you build very little transit and a lot of roads while the nation grows significantly, maybe the overall amount of cars will increase faster than the amount of transit ridership.
What’s most frustrating about this argument from “conservative” commentators is that they’re doing exactly what they accuse others of: coercing people to take only one mode. Barnes’ argument isn’t that we need both roads and transit. He only wants roads and nothing else. How does taking away choices create more freedom?
It’s just like the groceries. Some people like milk. Others like orange juice. The government is subsidizing the growing of both in this country. But we aren’t hearing “conservative” commentators argue that all orange subsidies have to end because adding a few new orange groves hasn’t succeeded in curbing obesity all on its own.
Another Barnes assertion claims transit in Washington hasn’t curbed congestion. Yet that Texas Transportation Institute report, which tautologically proves that if you build a lot more roads people spend more of their long commutes driving long distances fast instead of short distances slowly, showed that the Washington area has grown a lot since 1999 but without traffic actually getting worse.
The strange logic continues with a piece by Fred Utt of the Heritage Foundation criticizing transportation borrowing by Barack Obama and by Barbara Hollingsworth praising the same borrowing by Bob McDonnell.
Hollingsworth writes, “In order to take advantage of low construction costs, Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell and the General Assembly agreed to incur $4 billion in debt in order to expand and maintain the commonwealth’s extensive highway system, which has become seriously degraded after years of neglect.” But Utt decries federal transportation programs as “borrow-and-spend policies” and a “political slush fund.”
What’s the difference? It’s simple: One has some transit, the other doesn’t. Also, one executive is a Democrat, the other a Republican. Utt can’t abide transit because some people belong to a union. He seems to forget that so do highway builders. Hollingsworth, meanwhile, just hates the Silver Line.
She has three main criticisms: It’s expensive, there aren’t a lot of people nearby, and the number of people who will take a train to the airport doesn’t justify train service. Actually, there’s some difference of opinion among transit advocates about the Silver Line’s phase 2, from Wiehle Avenue through Dulles and into Loudoun County.
Starting with the third argument, Hollingsworth feeds off the common misconception many people have that this is primarily a “train to Dulles.” It’s really a train to Tysons and then to some park-and-rides near Dulles as well as the airport itself. Some people will use the train to go to the airport, but most riders in that section will be residents of the area using it to commute.
The Silver Line is expensive, but so are highways; it takes more local dollars because the federal government doesn’t contribute as much money to such a project as to an equivalent highway. As with Barnes’ claim that the little transit we’ve built hasn’t reduced traffic enough, this argument uses circular reasoning. Because the feds don’t pay much for transit, it’s expensive; therefore, the feds should stop paying anything at all.
As for there not being a lot of people nearby, as Richard Layman explains, heavy rail transit creates its own population density. The Silver Line will trigger more development in the areas where it will go.
While phase 1 of the Silver Line serves Tysons, an already-dense area that’s one of the largest job markets in the nation, phase 2 will primarily serve future development in western Fairfax and in Loudoun. To some, that’s an argument against it, since like a rural highway, it’s subsidizing far-flung development.
The fifth article, by Jonathan Last from the Weekly Standard, attempts to debunk the idea of induced demand, which he can’t abide. It reads like one of those polemics from evolution deniers, full of statements that the “experts” insist something is true, but it can’t possibly be.
Last cites 7 separate studies that back up induced demand, but then says it can’t be true because if you ask the average person on the street, they’d tell you that of course building highways makes traffic better. Oh, and there was once one study that said perhaps it’s overblown. Proof!
One group, he says, even went “spinning off into outer space” by trying to apply game theory. Because we all know that relatively new branches of mathematics never have any real application to existing problems.
Ultimately, this is all a lot of arguing over specifics. Individual studies or cost projections aren’t going to change minds. The fact is that road building interests, suburban development interests, and the “conservative” mouthpieces they fund are going crazy that a long-standing, enormous funding imbalance in their favor might be shifting back, even a little bit.
These two pie charts, one from Transit Miami in 2009 and one from Streetsblog yesterday, tell it all:
Few scream more loudly than an interest group used to getting the entire pie, especially during a time when the pie is shrinking due to static gas tax revenues.