Tuesday, February 13, 2007
Public transportation has been funded with billions of dollars over the past 40 years, much of it from federal funds. (As a former Washington, D.C., Metrorail rider for more than 10 years, I thank of the taxpayers of America.) Some of the dilemmas of the policy of supporting public transportation are shown in places such as St. Louis, where an expensive and physically stunning “light rail” system attracted fewer than 50,000 riders per day in 2006. (One of the most bizarre sights I have seen from the air is that of a jammed freeway full of suburban auto commuters inching their way over bulldozed and empty blocks of St. Louis, which holds fewer than half as many people today as it did 50 years ago.) Overlaying the contentious issues of class, race, and politics is the simple question: Who should pay for these projects?
In the Atlanta metro area –- infamous as one of the nation’s fastest growing and most gridlock-clogged –- the state plans to build a new rail line connecting downtown Atlanta with booming southern suburbs (Henry County, for example, doubled its population in the 1990s). But some local politicians think that the rail line is a waste of money that would benefit only a handful of riders; they have proposed that the line not be built unless each county and city in which a stop is planned agrees to pay for a large chunk of the bill. Some of the opponents are fiscal conservatives; others appear to be skeptics of public transportation in general.
It may be easy to say, “Transportation is a general public benefit and should be paid for by the public at large.” It may also be easy to conclude that the derided “bridge to nowhere” in Alaska debated in the U.S. Congress last year was not a justified use of public funds. A lot of plans are much grayer, however. I suggest a rule of thumb that local governments should pay for about half of the costs –- both capital costs and operating costs –- of transportation projects. Wouldn’t this impose too large of a burden on crowded metro governments? My initial response is that life in the big city is expensive, and that local residents should bear half of the burden of projects –- both roads and rail –- that they need.