Mass transit suicide

No, I'm not referring to a modern-day Anna Karenina throwing herself under an oncoming subway car. Bear with me.

Jay Yarow at Green Sheet wants to know why there is so little money for mass transit in the stimulus package.

If the stimulus is supposed to create jobs and--when possible--help the environment why not pour funding into the financially destroyed public transit already in existence? New York City, for example, is firing 1,500 transit workers and limiting subway service.

Yarow cites David Leonhardt's Economix post on the same subject. After talking to two mass-transit advocates, Leonhardt concludes that the feds don't want to run the risk of creating temporary subsidies for mass-transit operating expenses that will become permanent subsidies. Of course, the federal government provided operating subsidies as recently as 1998, so this would hardly be an unprecedented move. But if nothing else, this flash of stinginess suggests that the architects of the stimulus are at least somewhat sensitive to the long-run budget impact of their proposals.

There is another, more important issue: the financing structures of most urban mass-transit systems are byzantine and dysfunctional. Last month, Chris Hayes of The Nation interviewed a source at the Chicago Transit Authority on the barriers to a big infusion of federal cash. It's well worth a look.

The funding mechanisms for transit are perverse--IL funds its transit systems' operating budget through sales taxes and a small amount through real estate transfer taxes. The feds stopped providing operating support to transit systems in 1998. Roads are funded (again, generally speaking) w/gas tax. There have been attempts to realign this crazy situation with congestion pricing and other more equitable arrangements but nothing has come of it. And to recover federal capital dollars a state usually has to provide a state match (and sometimes a local match). IL, unable to pass a capital program since 1999, has recently forfeited much of the federal transit dollars it was to receive in the last transp. law.

Meanwhile, as William Neuman of the New York Times reports, support for ex-MTA head Richard Ravitch's plan to place the New York region's mass-transit system on a firmer financial footing is collapsing. At the heart of the plan is a region-wide payroll tax that would help subsidize the system; unsurprisingly, suburbanites are resisting the idea, fearing that it will be be a massive job-killer. Another part of the plan, tolls on the East River and Harlem River bridges, a paler, more modest version of proposed Bloomberg's congestion charge -- the failure of which cost New York city as much as $500 million in federal aid -- has also encountered intense opposition.

An infusion of federal cash could delay the MTA's reckoning, and that would no doubt be a good thing: transit access has a direct effect on the quality of life, housing values, and the region's economic viability. But the paralysis of New York's political culture doesn't lend itself to optimism re: what happens when the aid dries up. If transit in New York takes a turn for the worse, Washington shouldn't be blamed -- rather, the coalition of upstate and suburban lawmakers who killed the congestion charge should be targeted for defeat, if not tarring-and-feathering.  

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Reihan Salam is a policy advisor at Economics 21, a columnist for The Daily, and a blogger for National Review Online.

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