An Incrementalist Approach to Transportation Extremists

Architecture writer Karrie Jacobs has a new article up at Metropolis magazine’s website, “The Incrementalists,” in which she derides the supposed slow-and-steady course chartered by contemporary transportation planners. Her problem is not with the anti-mobility ideologies held by planners such as Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. No, her problem is that we’re not spending money fast enough on these “eco-friendly” transportation projects.

Jacobs begins with a jab at transportation infrastructure in the United States, “which seems so much smaller than the rest of the developed world when it comes to transportation infrastructure.” With respect to the size and scope of U.S. transportation infrastructure, perhaps it’s just because America is so much larger or that she’s not looking in the right places. But it becomes quite clear early on that Jacobs just has a thing for trains:

When I arrived at my destination, Copenhagen, I had a choice of two different one-seat rides to downtown: a regular train (the same line that will also whisk you to Malmö, Sweden, across the impressive, decade-old Øresund Bridge) or a metro line that began service only eight years ago and is part of a larger system still under construction. Either way, the trip cost about five bucks and took around 12 minutes. Easy to use and comprehend, even for a jet-lagged foreigner. (Have I mentioned that China is in the midst of building a network of bullet trains that will extend 9,700 miles by 2020? And that this project has given the Chinese the expertise to export their high-speed-rail technology?)

The assumption, rail = good, is relied upon for the rest of the piece. She then goes on to favorably highlight some really dumb projects that the Obama Department of Transportation funded last year. But as I said, her problem is not caused by the nonsensical, anti-mobility, smart-growth direction that transportation and land-use planning have been heading in for decades. It’s that these terrible counterproductive projects aren’t grand enough in scale or that we don’t have more of them.

Jacobs then pulls a LaHood, and makes an absurd comparison between highways and passenger rail. And it wasn’t noting that the Interstate system was supposed to be built in 12 years at a cost of $23.2 billion and instead took 35 years at a cost of $129 billion to build:

But if we were really serious about reducing our use of fossil fuels and changing how Americans get around, we’d be building something exactly as big as the interstate highway system. Of course, we might not have the money at the moment, but I think the real problem is that the federal government is afraid of acting like a federal government, all top-down and overbearing.

The Interstate system may have cost far more and taken far longer than planners had originally estimated, but it was at least pay-as-you-go and financed by users of the system in the form of excise taxes on motor fuel, tires, truck sales, etc. In fact, it still essentially operates in this manner, although 15 percent of federal gasoline tax revenue is reserved for mass transit. Jacobs wants an Interstate-level of federal spending all at once to construct a patchwork of track that the Trains of the Future will roll on.

Using the Interstate system as a model, I wonder: how many people in power would potentially be willing to compromise with Jacobs or other transport extremists? Could they agree to a user-pays/user-benefits financing principle for high-speed passenger rail and rail transit? Since charging inadequate fares and relying on perpetual operating subsidies is essentially a given for transit and passenger rail, the revenue can’t come directly from passengers. But it is possible to select products and services likely consumed by the rah-rah-rail demographic, tax them, and direct the revenue toward these rail projects. An inefficient tax, yes, but it’s more likely to raise revenue than for transit agencies to stop charging passengers below-cost fares.