Thursday, August 28, 2008

Critics Misfire Against Bold Transit Plans in Baltimore Region

By Hans Riemer.

One of the biggest myths about transportation funding is that transportation projects “pay for themselves.” They don’t. Roads and highways don’t pay for themselves and neither does transit. Both require contributions from general tax revenues.

But you wouldn’t know it from talking to your average politician, or your average voter, for that matter. The myth that the gas tax fully funds our roads and highways is pervasive.

Unfortunately, the gas tax myth also polarizes the debate about transportation, with advocates of one mode claiming that “their” transportation pays for itself while the rival is “free loading”.

A poignant example: You may have read the news about the dramatic and visionary decision by the Baltimore Regional Transportation Board, led by the young and energetic Howard County Executive Ken Ulman, to move $340 million in transportation funds entirely to transit. In the past, a large share of that funding would have gone to roads. The move should be a bellwether for Maryland transportation planning.

Well, the critics are getting their digs in now. Here is Howard County Delegate Bates complaining bitterly that, “We're going to be putting in more mass transit that doesn't even begin to pay for itself?”

Well, the basic fact is that, as The Capital reports, the gas tax only provides 19 percent of the revenues to the state transportation Trust Fund. Titling taxes provide another 20 percent. And the rest—i.e., the near two-thirds majority share of the funds?

The other 61 percent of the fund's revenue comes from federal aid, MVA registration and fees, corporate income taxes, transit fares and fees, bonds, and sales and use taxes.

Nationally, according to researchers, about 40% of the cost of the U.S. road network is covered by taxes that have nothing to do with automobiles at all.

The bottom line, then, is that decisions about how the money is used should not be constrained by where the money comes from—because enough money is coming out of general revenues that without it, the whole transportation fund would collapse. Planning decisions should be based on the merit of the policy, nothing more.

Indeed, the bottom line is that the “public interest” has the majority vote. And besides, if we were going to be strict and say that roads and transit should actually pay for themselves, we wouldn’t have any.

That said, I do think that we need dramatic increases in automobile user fees—including, for drivers, an increase in the gas tax and a large electronic toll network. We have already had a large increase in Metro fares. Why are drivers somehow exempt from their own fee increase in a time of transportation funding shortfalls? They shouldn’t be.

Three cheers to the Baltimore Regional Board for leading the way. Let’s keep it going.