William Lind’s Absurd “Conservative Case” for More Transit [Waste]

Over at enviro-blog Grist, conservative William Lind is interviewed on the subject of transit. Lind is an anomaly of sorts in the center-right transportation camp in that he backs many of the transit programs championed by leftists. Of course, just like the lefty backers, he gets virtually everything wrong in his diagnosis of what ails the American transportation system.

Lind, who wrote a recent book on the subject with the late Paul Weyrich (both of whom previously authored another error-laden book on the “conservative” case for transit), is a social conservative and has allowed his time spent working on defense issues to color his views about nearly everything. In particular, he regurgitates the myth that petroleum imports pose a serious national security threat:

The fundamental reason conservatives should support public transportation is because traditionally we’ve been strong on national security. The country’s single greatest national security vulnerability is our dependence on imported oil. For at least half of the American population, that dependence is complete; that is to say only half of the population has any public transit available at all. The first conservative virtue, as Russell Kirk argued, is prudence. It strikes us as wildly imprudent to make our mobility hostage to events in unstable parts of the world.

Of course, Lind fails to mention that the Department of Defense is the largest American consumer of fossil fuels. If you take as given his faulty assumption that oil imports fuel violent, anti-American extremists abroad, he should stick to criticizing America’s current interventionist foreign policy.

Next, he throws out some misleading statistics on government revenue and funding of different modes of transportation:

The latest Federal Highway Administration statistics show that user fees, including the gas tax, only cover 58 percent of the direct costs of highways. That’s not even looking at the vast indirect costs. And many rail — not bus, but rail — public transit systems are able to cover 50 percent and more of their expenses out of the fare box. Of course they’re all built with government money, mostly federal, more federal in the highways than transit. Highways get 80 percent federal; normally transit only gets 50 percent.

This is an argument based upon a lie by omission. What Lind fails to mention is that only 80 percent of “highway user fees” go back to actually benefiting those who pay the fees — drivers. The vast majority of the remaining revenue is siphoned off and allocated to wasteful transit systems. Another Lind omission is that the vast majority of Americans place a premium on driving, meaning that there are significant benefits (in terms of more satisfied preferences) from driving that cannot be captured by a simple fiscal accounting analysis. He does, however, identify a problem: too much federal control over America’s highway system. But his cure of more transit is far worse than the disease, and does not propose transferring federal control to the states.

And to get his somewhat rosy-looking transit figures, he lumps in rail and bus transit. Lind vastly prefers rail transit, but the difference between these modes is like night and day. Bus rapid transit (BRT), if properly designed, actually makes sense. But rail transit, outside of a few dense cities, virtually never makes sense. This is due to the facts that BRT is far cheaper and better addresses road congestion — by far the most serious transportation problem in America — while rail transit is more expensive and does not address congestion in any meaningful way. Lind’s main argument against more BRT — and I am not making this up — is that “[t]he population on board will be largely minority; conservatives usually are white or Asian. They’re not going to be comfortable surrounded by blacks and Hispanics.” (Emphasis added.) Seriously? This is the “conservative case” for more wasteful rail transit: too many non-whites ride buses?

He then goes on to repeat the bogus claim that rail transit tends to boost the value of abutting or nearby private property (again, this is the exception, not the rule). But for Lind, the efficiency of the transportation system is secondary. Socially engineering society to fit his unhinged, narrow world view comes first.