Sagrada Familia

Vote Transit

Ezra Klein warms my heart:

How long till traffic becomes a voting issue? Americans spend more time in it every year. They get heart attacks from it. And now, with gas prices well above $100 — and racing skyward still — how long till road rage, till driving, till a life spent in the car and a paycheck spent at the pump, become voting issues? Arguably, gas prices are already there. But no politicians has figured out how to do anything with that save promise lower gas prices. But we’re not going to lower gas prices. And discontent will only become more intense. Someday, some politician is going to figure out what to do with that, and my hunch in the word “transit” will be a big part of it.

Emphasis added. I’ll go him one better — not only will no one lower gas prices, but even if we did, it would increase traffic.

I just love, love, love how far the national conversation has moved towards a pro-transit agenda. We’ve got a long way to go before we’re spending more money on rail than roads, but we’re getting there.

For more, check out this post on The Overhead Wire regarding the proposed Boxer Amendment to the Lieberman-Warner climate change bill.


TOW notes that Minnesota’s James Oberstar is pushing changes to the Federal Transportation Administration’s guidelines for cost-effectiveness so that they take into account more factors, like the potential for development around the route. The FTA thinks BRT is the solution for everything, but this relatively obscure bureaucratic change could make it much easier to get federal funding for light rail instead.

I love the way minor changes like this in the large organism that is government can have such large ramifications. It’s very similar to the way WSDOT redefined capacity last year, opening up the possibility of a surface-transit replacement for the viaduct.

Sports Shuttle Scuttled?

You know the dozens of Metro buses that sit outside Husky Stadium and Safeco Field after the games? The ones that decrease traffic by providing other transit options? Well, the Bush Administration doesn’t like them, because they’re taxpayer-supported, and therefore make it hard for private bus companies to compete for the business.

It should come as no surprise that the FTA wants to terminate this arrangement: it makes government look too good! If people see government doing good things, they might — God forbid — want more government!

Oh, and remind me never, ever to book Starline Luxury Coaches for anything:

Gladys Gillis, head of Starline Luxury Coaches who was on the rules committee for the new law, said her company is eager to bid on many of the shuttle operations, such as the Mariner games and the Flower and Garden Show.

She cheered the new rules. “Agencies supported by tax dollars could drive private businesses out of business,” she said. “It’s always been illegal for tax-funded agencies to compete with private business, but there’s been gray areas. This will give us an opportunity to do the work.”

She also said that the 55 buses in her fleet are cheaper to operate than Metro buses because she doesn’t pay union wages to her drivers.

Knife a public agency in the back, and get some union-busting thrown in as a bonus! It’s a Republican double-whammy.

Ride the Obama Train

For hard-core rail advocates, there was never a better candidate in the 2008 presidential race than Bill Richardson, who not only talked the talk as a presidential candidate, but also walked the walk by launching a passenger rail service in Albuquerque when he was governor of New Mexico.

But now that Richardson’s gone, we rail junkies will have to get our fix from Barack Obama, who’s the only candidate left who’s still interested in rail transit as a way to reduce our dependence on oil.


The Times on Rossi's Plan

Good for the Times calling B.S. on Rossi’s transportation “plan.” Rossi’s basically regurgitated the WSDOT to-do list (“we should totally replace the viaduct and 520!” Um..yeah, ya think??) and added some wacky ideas to it that don’t pass the straight face test.

And yet, he’s running neck-and-neck with Gregoire. Oy.


The new Golf diesel-hybrid. Greener than the Prius. Not on sale in the U.S. yet, though.

Innovations like this make me even more convinced that high gas prices are not enough to dissuate the majority of us from our SOV lifestyles. You could trade in a 22mpg Ford for one of these Golfs, and gas would have to hit $11/gallon before you started feeling it in the wallet.

To take this one step further, I’m generally concerned with the idea of guilting or shaming people into density: “get rid of your house in the suburbs or the polar bears will die and the ice caps will melt!.” People are psychologically and developmentally attuned to reject those sorts of arguments.

Transit-oriented lifestyles can (and should) be spun positively:

  • Nightlife is cool.
  • Walking to the grocery store and not having to circle for parking is cool!
  • Being able to walk home or take the bus home drunk from the bar is really cool!!
  • Being assured that your teenage kids aren’t driving around drunk is extra super cool!!!
  • Being home in time to help your kids do their homework and not just tuck them in to bed is ZOMG the coolest thing ever!!!!
  • Etc…

You catch more flies with honey, right?

I’m not trying to discount the role of public policy here. Clearly I support policies like denser zoning, mixed use, carbon-sensitive zoning, etc. But the point is that you build support for those sorts of things by making the lifestyles associated with them attractive and compelling.

Politics and Transit

Putzing around on the internet in the wake of last night’s elections, I saw this, the statement that Al Wynn, a congressman from Maryland:

This domestic policy should include providing universal health coverage for everyone, creating domestic jobs and transit projects (i.e., Purple Line), as well as fighting global warming with a cap and trade program to limit emissions. [emph. added]

It’s interesting to see a congressman — federal, no less — be such a bold transit supporter like that. You don’t typically see that sort of thing here in Washington. Don’t get me wrong, Patty Murray’s been great for Sound Transit, but it’s certainly not the sort of thing you see pols bending over backwards to promise us come election time: “Vote for me and I’ll make sure light rail gets to Redmond!”

I do remember Greg Nickels running on a vague, “all transit all the time” platform where he simultaneously embraced the Monorail AND Sound Transit. But generally pols treat the transit agencies here like a hot potato. Sure, they serve on the ST board, and they formally supported last fall’s Prop. 1, but the typical face of the Prop. 1 campaign was the Washington Business Roundtable.

If this is indeed the case — and I’m not convinced, just putting it out here for discussion — I wonder how much it has to do with the initiative system. Because so much of our transit is approved by popular vote, it disconnects the pols from responsibility. And since their a** isn’t personally on the line, they’re less invested in the outcome. As a result, the debate drags on interminably and concrete never gets poured.

[The exception here might be the Seattle Streetcar, which pols were falling all over each other to take credit for. But that wasn't up for a vote: the exception that proves the rule?]

And yet, at the same time, the legislators who put Prop. 1 together assumed — incorrectly it turns out — that voters think like they do: they assumed we’re willing to horse-trade: that I would, say, wheel and deal with my counterpart in Pierce County, supporting the Cross Base Highway in exchange for his/her support of my light rail. But voters don’t think like politicians. We’re more likely to just reject the whole thing if it gets too complicated.

I’m not exactly sure what to make of all this, it just sort of popped into my head as I was reading the results of tonight’s elections. What do you think?

More on the Mortgage Analogy

Stefan Sharkansky derides the mortgage analogy:

The analogy to a home mortgage is absurd. Owning a home is a voluntary proposition and you can sell the home when you choose to. With the Sound Transit boondoggle, many of the people who vote for it won’t be paying for it and vice versa. And if it doesn’t suit our needs? Then it’s a moneypit, from which there’s no escape.

Mr. Sharkansky seems to take the analogy too far. Of course financing a light rail system is not at all like owning a home. The point of the analogy is simply to put the numbers in perspective. Most all major purchases in life –from trains to cars to houses to big-screen TVs — require some form of credit. But rarely do we include the finance charges when we talk about the overall costs.

Sound Politics being a conservative blog, the conservative case for transit is worth repeating in this context.

Transit and Conservatism

Conservatives and libertarians’ arguments against transit boil down to three categories.

1) “No More Taxes”

2) “We Should Spend it on Roads”

3) “Transit is Socialism”

I can’t say much about the first argument. If you sincerely believe that taxes in and of themselves are always bad, and if you’re willing to trade off more and better public services for lower taxes (thus ignoring a fundamental finding of neo-classical economics — that public goods such as roads, police, and schools will always be underprovided absent a government to provide them), well, then, there’s not much I can say to you. Congratulations on your good fortune … it’s not many people who can afford private armies with which to conduct their own personal foreign policies, and fewer still who can pave their own private roads to get to and from work. So, good luck to you, sirs and madams; you are truly fortunate.

The second argument was highlighted in an op-ed in yesterday’s Seattle Times (read Frank’s rebuttal). As Frank points out, there are hidden costs inherent in roads. In formal economic terms, some of these costs are “externalities”, i.e., the source of the cost (say, the air pollution from car exhaust), is spread equally among all people who breathe the air. Thus, the driver of any single polluting vehicle bears little of the total cost of this pollution, and so has an incentive to pollute. Use taxes on vehicles — such as license tabs, gas taxes, tolls, etc. — can help mitigate some of these impacts, but the truth is that in the United States we generally do a poor job of forcing drivers to bear the total costs of their activities.

In addition to such externalities, the other fallacy inherent in the “spend it on roads” argument is that road capacity is scalable linearly. It’s not. Doubling theoretical capacity of a road (say, by doubling the number of lanes), does not in fact lead to a doubling in capacity (an accident that closes the highway closes the highway whether there’s one lane or twenty, e.g.). Not to mention the huge footprint that roads require. Something like 10% of urban land in the U.S. is devoted to roads and parking lots … insane, in my opinion.

Which leads me to the third argument — “transit is socialist.” The idea here is that transit, a “mass” activity, is somehow unAmerican by the fact that it requires people to congregate together in a communal activity, while cars are more in line with the individualistic nature of American life.

There’re (at least) a couple of problems with this argument. No one is “forced” to use transit. Therefore anyone who chooses to ride in a car will always have that option available. But I think there’s a more fundamental refutation.

Conservatism — the libertarian kind, any way — is about choice. It’s about having the opportunity to select from among as many different methods as possible to accomplish your own personal goals. In fact, our auto-centric culture creates precisely the opposite situation — in many cities, for most people in the most common kinds of living situations, the fact that we’ve underprovided transit means that people are forced — forced! — to use a car. This is the opposite of choice, and is absolutely in opposition to the spirit and principles of American libertarianism.

More and more thoughtful conservatives are starting to realize this, and are adding their voices to the chorus of those of us calling for increased investment in transit and transit-related infrastructure.

Paul Weyrich (one of the founders of the Heritage Foundation, and an advocate for increased rail spending), for example, writes:

… my colleague William S. Lind and I have written several monographs … making the conservative case for rail transit, including streetcars. It seems the public agrees with us because while in State after State conservatives have won ballot initiatives in many of these same States transit initiatives also have won. The libertarians have made the case that money for public transit is a waste. They want more roads. That is a form of subsidized transportation as well. But they don’t see it that way because individuals can drive. However, in city after city which has adopted light rail an overflow crowd has elected to use it as opposed to driving.

The point we try to make is that under the right circumstances rail works. No matter how fancy the bus people don’t care to ride a bus. Buses serve Manassas, Virginia, Fredericksburg, Virginia and Baltimore, Maryland. Yet competing commuter rail lines carry many more passengers than do the bus lines. That is true even though busses are in some cases more convenient. People like to ride rail.

Another member of the “neo-neo-conservative” (or, as he calls, it, the “next conservative”) movement adds:

As someone who has lived and traveled extensively overseas, one thing I miss the most in the “good ol’ US of A” is a decent public transportation system. In many countries of the world, it is quite comfortable to get around without owning a car. But here, especially where I live, it is next to impossible to get by without one.

Although I appreciate the wealth and the freedom we have in this country to own cars and drive where we like, when we like, I feel we take this freedom to an extreme. Or perhaps I should say, our urban environment forces us to use cars far more often than is necessary or prudent. I don’t put the blame on any one group, person or factor. But clearly, our city planning has evolved in an environment where cars, gas and land were cheap, and public transportation seemed too costly because our cities are too spread out …

In conclusion, I strongly believe the next conservatism should support mass transit, to conserve our precious resources, decrease urban sprawl, lower the blood pressure of every commuter who rides it, and help relieve the heavy load on many of our roads.

In short, the Seattle Times and its contributors need to get with the program and realize that even conservatives increasingly draw the conclusion — transit works, build more.