« Things Filled With Things | Main | Why Federalism Fails »

August 30, 2007

Funding Transit

As it turns out, when you don't fund crucial public services, they don't work very well. It's a fun cycle: The DC Metro has no dedicated source of funding nor particularly united constituency, so it gets shortchanged come funding time. Inevitably, the lack of funds degrade service and lead to failures. This makes the Metro less pleasant, driving people away, serving as an argument that government can't do anything right, and giving fuel to those who say that we should reinvest in more roads and private transportation infrastructure. As Ryan Avent pointed out, here's the result: This year, the government will allot $1.4 billion in federal spending for transit, and $42 billion in federal spending for highways. Sure is a mystery why our public transit systems don't work better.

I also think Ryan's right to say that "while residents of cities with good transit systems understand how popular and helpful those systems are, residents of other places–that is, most of the country–still view transit as a bit utopian and inherently unworkable given population densities." Subways are such an engineering marvel that it's almost impossible for me to believe that they really exist, or that we could build more of them. But they do, and we can.

I think a bigger problem is that the sorts of public transportation that are beloved as an alternative to cars -- namely, systems that don't use roads, and thus evade traffic -- need to hit a critical mass of lines, stops, and, stations before they become a real useful alternative. Building that sort of infrastructure takes time, and our politics doesn't tend to like solutions that won't solve anything before the next few elections end.

August 30, 2007 | Permalink

Comments

residents of other places–that is, most of the country–still view transit as a bit utopian brown and inherently unworkable black

Typos fixed.

Posted by: pseudonymous in nc | Aug 30, 2007 11:01:09 AM

As I mentioned on this discussion over at MattY's blog, even in situations where density is there, we still don't have good transit infrastructure. The I-95 rail corridor is substandard. The DC-metro area's density lends itself to a fuller public transit infrastructure, and Boston remains fixated on planning their new public transit infrastructure around slow moving buses. And these are all places that could support rapid mass-transit. We simply don't have the will to create "showpiece" systems in places where it actually makes sense.

Another funny thing about the metro is that, in the various controversies surrounding some basic renovations, one of the members of the board described the DC metro as "The Cadillac of urban transit systems." This was right on as a description-- a Cadillac was very nice in its hey-day, when little else was available, it is still considered luxurious by the elderly and the poor, it's unreliable, unwieldy, and you can find much better models for what you're looking for that are made in foreign countries.

Posted by: Tyro | Aug 30, 2007 11:02:50 AM

People who were in DC in the 1970s have serious horror stories about navigating the city during the subway's construction. I think you're right; political will for things that take time is an impediment, but so is political will for things that are massive, massive inconveniences at first.

Politicians need to accept that a) there will be bitching, and b) it will be Democrats pushing for it, Democrats getting bitched at, and ultimately, the overwhelming majority of those Democrats getting re-elected because they're from urban or near-suburban districts that won't be annoyed enough about this to elect Republicans. Now is the single best time in those near suburbs for this sort of push; Democrats in those districts are more immune from Republicans than they have been in a long time or will be again soon.

Posted by: jhupp | Aug 30, 2007 11:10:33 AM

Thanks for the link, Ezra. You might also want to check out this.

Posted by: ryan | Aug 30, 2007 11:50:15 AM

ryan, I'm going to make a perverse argument in the other direction-- that Taylor has it wrong: gasoline taxes aren't going to increase transit ridership and decrease auto use; they increase auto use. Why? The gas tax creates a perverse incentive to legislatures: the more people drive, the more money comes into the state coffers. Thus, policies that encourage people to drive result in more money to spend on legislative favors.

Without a gas tax, legislators' transit/transport policies would be divorced from "what gives us the most money?"

Posted by: Tyro | Aug 30, 2007 12:16:38 PM

I guess this speaks more to how awful Atlanta is, but I always thought the DC Metro was great. . .

Posted by: Dave | Aug 30, 2007 12:20:41 PM

Hell, I'm still smarting from shortsighted decision made when the Metro was first built, namely not to have express trains. I don't mind there not being an express, as I live in the city and it wouldn't make my commute much faster, but I sure would love it if there was a way to get around trains that break down. Because there's not, you have a situation like my morning, where my train waits for 20 minutes in the tunnel between Eastern Market and Capitol South because of malfunctioning train ahead of us. Gah!

The problem with regional decision makers today is that such shortsighted decision are being made anew. Scrapping the tunnel under Tyson's Corner kills the plans to urbanize the area. A light rail purple line is going to take forever to get from Bethesda to New Carrollton. And now Catoe is talking about replacing late night service on weekends with buses, an experiment that failed in Boston. It's like these people can't at all see how these decisions are doomed to cause worse problems down the road.

Posted by: Cain | Aug 30, 2007 12:28:26 PM

It's like these people can't at all see how these decisions are doomed to cause worse problems down the road.

My suspicion is that a lot of this is caused because public transit agencies are seen as dumping grounds for the politically well-connected in search of a well-paying government job. There's no way that a group of people with a passion for transit issues could be making these decisions. Instead, it's possible you have a bunch of gullible people with little background in the field being flattered and duped by consultants and salesmen trying to convince agencies that "slow buses are the next big thing! and you'll be so popular with the politicians because you'll save money!" Lyle Lanley didn't sell boston the monorail. He sold boston the silver line.

Posted by: Tyro | Aug 30, 2007 12:57:22 PM

I love Colorado. Denver is probably the one big city where good public transportation is a bit of a luxury--because so many people work outside of the city center, traffic really isn't so bad, at least not compared to the other big cities I've lived in (Chicago, Dallas, DC). And yet not only do they have a surprisingly decent lightrail system, but it is so popular that property values have skyrocketed within walking distance of stops.

I guess that's what happens when you get a metropolitan area primarily populated by east coast transplants and hippies.

Posted by: Joe | Aug 30, 2007 1:01:19 PM

I've ridden the DC metro twice a day for years. Severe problems are rare - certainly far more rare than the frequent delays faced by people who drive to work. Of course, running a subway really isn't all that hard. Even the Soviets ran pretty reliable subways.

Posted by: ostap | Aug 30, 2007 1:35:36 PM

ostap, some days the metro is the best in the world. some days I have a seething hatred for the system.

During rush hour, when there hasn't been a failure, and the trains are coming every 2-3 minutes, it's awesome. When I walk 10 minutes to my local metro station only to find that the next one isn't scheduled to arrive for 20 minutes, it makes me want to scream bloody murder.

Of course, running a subway really isn't all all that hard. Even the Soviets ran pretty reliable subways.

Isn't that what makes this all so frustrating? We're the richest country in the world. For once could our most public of public infrastructure be something to literally "write home about"?

Posted by: Tyro | Aug 30, 2007 1:43:19 PM

It's a bit unfair to compare how much the government spends on highways vs transit, without noting how much the government EARNS from highways vs transit.

By my quick figuring, the federal government collected about $100 mm from road fuel taxes in 2005. All of that is basicly earnings from highways.

Posted by: SamChevre | Aug 30, 2007 1:50:46 PM

Eh--put me down for someone who loved the DC metro in the two years I lived there... generally reliable, frequent trains that run late into the night on weekends, stations in virtually every DC neighborhood (except Georgetown.) Yeah--it's not perfect. But I know no one who preferred driving to the metro... hell, DC is one of the few cities in the country where a young person can avoid owning a car without it hampering his social or professional life in any meaningful way... I've always thought of the metro as a model for how other cities should run their light rail systems.

Posted by: brad | Aug 30, 2007 2:02:21 PM

Yeah, uhhh ... I would like to again register that urban centers beyond DC, Boston, and probably Chicago and Philly would kill for a transit system of DC's coverage and quality. We can't even get a lot of our buses to run more than every half hour off-peak. In a pro-transit city!

Posted by: Nicholas Beaudrot | Aug 30, 2007 2:03:18 PM

I've always thought of the metro as a model for how other cities should run their light rail systems.

Metro is a heavy-rail system. It's also much more a commuter rail system than the kind of comprehensive transit solution represented by the London Underground, the Paris Métro, or the New York subway. That being the case, the DC Metro needs an extensive bus network to address its deficiencies, and that's where you see the system at its worst. If your beginning and ending point aren't both fairly near one of the very spread-out rail stations, good luck getting where you're going, especially on weekends, when many bus lines don't run at all. The cycle of service-cuts, declining ridership, rate increases, declining ridership, service cuts, etc., in Metrobus service in the last fifteen years has been heart-breaking to me.

Posted by: Herschel | Aug 30, 2007 2:41:18 PM

stations in virtually every DC neighborhood (except Georgetown

It's also missing stations in Mount Pleasant, Glover Park, AU Park, Adams-Morgan, north Capitol Hill, most of NE & SE across the Anacostia, and any "upper" portion of any quadrant. Buses are supposed to make up for that, but generally one either has to be poor or really committed to public transport to bother to look up where they go (Georgetown probably has the most bus service in all the city, stop bitchin').

I also feel the harsh residential/commercial separation in DC makes Metro less effective than it could be.

Posted by: Cain | Aug 30, 2007 2:58:10 PM

It's also much more a commuter rail system than the kind of comprehensive transit solution represented by the London Underground, the Paris Métro, or the New York subway.

I have to disagree with that characterization. The metro has far more urban than suburban stops and on weekends, at least when I was there a couple years ago, ran until 3:00 or 4:00 a.m... I don't think anyone is commuting at 3:00 on saturday.

More to the point, you can contrast the metro with a true commuter system--something like we have in the SF Bay Area (where I am now.) The system shuts down at midnight on Friday and Saturday nights (party early or get a designated driver) and while they keep expanding stations out to keep up with suburban sprawl, there are no plans that I know of to create additional stations in the cities (San Francisco, Berkeley, Oakland.) In fact, I'm headed into SF from Oakland in a few minutes to the Haight, which is a pretty major neighborhood. My options are to drive, take a BART train and walk about 1.5 miles, or take BART to a bus line. So I'll drive. On a spare the air day. Because public transportation, because it doesn't serve the city, will take easily twice as long, if not longer.

I never found the metro to take twice as long as driving. On the rare occasion I drove in DC, it usually took longer than it would have taken to hop on the metro.

Posted by: brad | Aug 30, 2007 3:02:32 PM

It's also missing stations in Mount Pleasant, Glover Park, AU Park, Adams-Morgan

Well, they fixed the two of those problems by renaming Tenleytown to Tenleytown-AU and Woodley Park-Zoo to Woodley Park-Zoo/Adams Morgan. Hey presto! If they renamed the latter station to Woodley Park-Zoo/Adams Morgan/Kalorama, there'd be a station in my neighborhood too!

Posted by: Herschel | Aug 30, 2007 3:08:02 PM

It's also missing stations in Mount Pleasant, Glover Park, AU Park, Adams-Morgan, north Capitol Hill, most of NE & SE across the Anacostia, and any "upper" portion of any quadrant.

Mt Pleasant? Adams Morgan? It's true, I suppose, that parts of Adams Morgan are a bit of a pain to walk to, but the columbia heights metro (or somewhere on the green line--it's been a little while since I lived there) is three or four blocks from Mt. Pleasant and maybe a 10-15 minute walk from parts of Adams Morgan. Some of the gaps can be covered on foot, in other words, for most people. (I sort of think of Glover Park and Georgetown as the same neighborhood, but it's true, coverage could be better there.)

Again, I'm not saying that the Metro is perfect in every way. But I've lived in a few cities now and the Metro was far and away the best public transportation system I've experienced, and complaining that the Metro doesn't go to Mt. Pleasant because it stops four blocks away in Columbia Heights is evidence of just how good the system is.

Posted by: brad | Aug 30, 2007 3:10:13 PM

I have to disagree with that characterization. The metro has far more urban than suburban stops and on weekends, at least when I was there a couple years ago, ran until 3:00 or 4:00 a.m... I don't think anyone is commuting at 3:00 on saturday.

I'm not saying that Metro is only a commuter system (and I'm certainly not saying it isn't better than the rail systems that most other American cities have). However, of Metro's 86 stations, 41 are in the city, 45 are outside it. Even looking at the Metro schematic map, it's clear that it was designed to bring people from the suburbs to the city and carry them back again. Within the city, outside of the core, stations are miles apart. This is what makes frequent and reliable bus service imperative. But my neighborhood, for example, is not served by buses at all on weekends, and weekday service is neither frequent nor reliable.

Metrorail service has certainly become more comprehensive as the system has been completed than it was in the early days. For years, the system shut down at midnight and didn't operate on Sundays at all. And they have even added one extra station inside the city on the red line.

Posted by: Herschel | Aug 30, 2007 3:31:19 PM

It's also missing stations in Mount Pleasant, Glover Park, AU Park, Adams-Morgan, north Capitol Hill, most of NE & SE across the Anacostia, and any "upper" portion of any quadrant.

I live in Mt. Pleasant and there are two stops within 20 minutes of it- Cleveland Park to the West and Columbia Heights to the east- just not one directly IN Mt. Pleasant. Compared to people living in the Northeast quadrant (aka about 50% of DC) that's like walking down the street to the mailbox.

Forget the outerloop and Dulles lines- the biggest problem with the Metro is there's no easy access to half of NE. And there never will be because there's no commercial interests there, hence no incentive to build a multi-stop line.

I'm not even going to get started on how shameful the lack of funding for Amtrak is. There's no reason we shouldn't have a train system that rivals Europe.

Posted by: August J. Pollak | Aug 30, 2007 3:34:17 PM

But I've lived in a few cities now and the Metro was far and away the best public transportation system I've experienced, and complaining that the Metro doesn't go to Mt. Pleasant because it stops four blocks away in Columbia Heights is evidence of just how good the system is.

If you lived on the overwhelming majority of Mt. Pleasant that is not Mt. Pleasant Street, you'd be singing a different tune.

Posted by: Cain | Aug 30, 2007 3:37:07 PM

Compared to people living in the Northeast quadrant (aka about 50% of DC)

I don't know where you get this idea. In both area and population, Northwest is by far the largest quadrant. Which is not to say that Northeast isn't underserved by Metrorail.

Posted by: Herschel | Aug 30, 2007 4:44:41 PM

Posted by: Tyro | Aug 30, 2007 12:16:38 PM

Why? The gas tax creates a perverse incentive to legislatures: the more people drive, the more money comes into the state coffers. Thus, policies that encourage people to drive result in more money to spend on legislative favors.

Without a gas tax, legislators' transit/transport policies would be divorced from "what gives us the most money?"

Except that we are a test case, because compare to other high income countries in the world, we have next to no gas tax, and we have the highest rates of sprawl and automobile use. The last figures I saw (admittedly, around 2000), Australia was next in sprawl and automobile use, and next lowest in gas tax.

Bear in mind that maximum gas tax collection is not the same as maximizing gas sold ... as with any other product with an inelastic demand due to addiction (need to get to work with gasoline, physical addiction with cigarettes), a tax high enough to noticeably reduce total sales will yield higher revenue than one that is set to avoid a substantial reduction in sales.

Posted by: BruceMcF | Aug 30, 2007 4:51:27 PM

Posted by: SamChevre | Aug 30, 2007 1:50:46 PM

It's a bit unfair to compare how much the government spends on highways vs transit, without noting how much the government EARNS from highways vs transit.

By my quick figuring, the federal government collected about $100 mm from road fuel taxes in 2005. All of that is basicly earnings from highways.

OTOH, federal, state and local governments will have spent substantial amounts in car-related expenses other than infrastructure, so if all the tax revenue from the road fuel tax goes into road construction, that is a recipe for the auto-based mixed public/private transport system claiming ever larger amounts of general tax revenue.

Posted by: BruceMcF | Aug 30, 2007 4:57:49 PM

The comments to this entry are closed.