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Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Less Money for Mass Transit?

We’re driving less. And that’s good. This has reduced gas tax revenues. And that’s unfortunate. So the Bush Administration has proposed taking money out of the Federal Highway Trust Fund’s mass transit account to make up the resulting shortfall in the highway account. And that’s insane.

Taking this step would require Congressional approval, so, again, we will see if the Dems have a modicum of spine and can stand up to the president. The house has already passed a bill that would provide $8 billion in general revenue funding for highways—but, of course, the administration is threatening to veto that bill. The president considers that latter alternative irresponsible spending.

Bridges to Nowhere aside, I don’t have a problem with reasonable highway funding. We have ignored our infrastructure to the point where it is literally collapsing. We need a Manhattan Project to blanket the nation in high speed rail, but we will still need roads.

Secretary of Transportation Mary Peters has said that she will soon announce a plan to fund highways using private capital and increased (and variable) use of tolls. I don’t have a problem with that last part. We ought to pay more to drive; varying that cost, day to day, hour to hour, is a good way to work toward “balancing the load,” encouraging people to drive less at peak times.

Don’t like the smell of “private capital” in this context, though. For a number of years now deals have been both proposed and consummated to give 99 year leases to private road operators in exchange for either cash up front or regular rental fees on highways, bridges, and turnpikes. Foreign companies like the Australian toll-road operator MIG and the Spanish road operator Cintra have been heavily involved in this practice—as have the Iraq War pirates at KBR. This list may be a little out of date, but gives a quick overview.

The idea that “private is always better” has never made sense to me. Paul Krugman has written extensively about the relative efficiency of the VA medical system versus private insurance, for example.

If private companies expect to reap substantial profits by “taxing” drivers and paying for road maintenance, the government should be able to do the same at a significant savings. Market ideology aside, perhaps they are hoping to avoid the backlash that might be expected if governments, local, state, or federal, began routinely charging us to drive.

Given the growing rage at illegal immigration, outsourcing, and matters of national sovereignty, hard to see how there won’t be one helluva backlash from people who have to pay Australians for the right to drive through Indiana.

I’m willing to buy train technology from the Japanese; I don’t like the idea of renting anyone our roads. And the idea that we ought to fund highway projects by further impoverishing our sparse mass transit infrastructure is. . . just insane.

1 comment:

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