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As I've written before and other people have noted before me, Mass transit fights global warming in two ways:
1) When population density is high enough to make the use of mass transit efficient, a bus burns less gas than the cars the passengers would take if the bus were not available.
2) Mass transit encourages and enables a population density greater than would be reasonable without it. And a greater population density means a lower carbon footprint per capita.

Thus, one of the most effective things that politicians -- federal and state -- can do to reduce the carbon footprint is to encourage and subsidize mass transit where it is effective.

The problem is that it is effective in only a few areas. And, with the possible exception of New York City in its state, those areas do not have the population to have the representation to get those appropriations. So the good-government choice of encouraging mass transit where it is effective conflicts with the political choice of shipping those appropriations to my district.

That leaves us with several unpalatable options.
1) Fund mass transit where it wastes gas until most politicians get a little of the pie.
2) Leave mass transit to be funded out of passengers and local governments, which means leaving it ill-funded and underperforming.
3) Put it in a group-centered log-rolling pool: "We are all agreed, if your group votes to fund mass transit, our group will fund agricultural subsidies."

Concrete examples of # 1 after the jump

When, at one time, the federal government was funding transit in as broad a sweep as it could, Holland Michigan, which is nobody's idea of a population base to support a transit system, got a subsidy. They invented Dial a Ride. This involves calling a central location to tell them where you were and where you wanted to go. A van and driver would show up soon to take you to your destination. This differed from a taxi in three ways:
1) On the odd and unlikely chance that somebody else in your area called up at almost the same time with a destination which could be worked into yours, you had to share the ride. It must have happened, but my family's stories of Dial a Ride never involved such events.
2) The van was much larger than the average US taxicab.
3) Because of the federal subsidy, it was much cheaper.

During another of the federal government's rare excursions into subsidizing mass transit, they decreed that transit should be regional. They wouldn't fund anything local. Although the Chicago Transit Authority already serviced several close-in suburbs (and although Chicago has a larger population than several states do), that wasn't good enough. The other suburbs said to Chicago "Well, you want this subsidy, and we don't really care. We've got along without buses this long." The final deal was that the money in the fare box would be divided to Chicago's disadvantage, but there would be a Regional Transit Authority. This would get enough federal subsidy that the CTA would still get more money than it would otherwise have gotten, even though the suburban buses -- now PACE -- would get a bigger share. We still have a Regional Transit Authority. PACE still gets a more generous share. The federal operating subsidy is a faint, although fond, memory. The suburbs are now quite pleased with their service from PACE.

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Comment Preferences

  •  Tip Jar (6+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    JeffW, Dude1701, chimpy, rja, HeyMikey, BachFan

    Corporations are people; money is speech.
    1984 - George Orwell

    by Frank Palmer on Wed Sep 07, 2011 at 08:00:02 AM PDT

  •  There's a sizeable urban Population Across (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    chimpy, debedb

    rust belt inner suburbs which are dense enough to have some mass transit now and it could be increased.

    And mass transit doesn't have to burn gas at all.

    Buses can run on live wire trolley electric, as they did practically everywhere 50 years ago, which combines the flexibility of easily changed bus routes along with the energy efficiency of no-storage electric power. So as wind and solar move onto the grid the mass transit joins other grid electricity use in reducing carbon footprint even further still.

    For modern sprawl suburbs and rural areas, sure, only a long distance rail line would make sense in those places, but we're still quite underdeveloped for inner suburban and urban places where scores of millions of people live.

    We are called to speak for the weak, for the voiceless, for victims of our nation and for those it calls enemy.... --ML King "Beyond Vietnam"

    by Gooserock on Wed Sep 07, 2011 at 08:24:28 AM PDT

  •  We'll need to be careful what deals we make (0+ / 0-)

    The right systems can be effective in more than a few areas. They need a high enough level of service, though, to lure drivers out of their cars. Two hours and three connections is not an attractive alternative to a forty-minute drive, no matter what gas costs. To get over that hump of adoption, some subsidy will probably be needed.

    I won't argue that federal grants always go to the best choices, but I know that good choices are out there. The Chicago/PACE deal sounds more like option #2 (funded out of passengers and local governments) disguised as #1 until the grant ended.

    Our best bet is to look for things that will keep growing on their own, and find the subsidy to get them there.

    Why is there a Confederate Flag flying in Afghanistan?

    by chimpy on Wed Sep 07, 2011 at 09:02:16 AM PDT

  •  Fight for principle of equal subsidy with roads. (0+ / 0-)

    We should make our case for mass transit in terms of equalizing subsidies per-passenger-mile with roads. I confess I haven't done the actual math, but considering that roads are (a) expensive and (b) 100% subsidized, that would have to result in much higher subsidies for mass transit.

    We should also fight for paying for roads 100% from motor fuel taxes. At present the motor fuel tax doesn't nearly cover the cost of roads, so they get additional subsidies from general taxation. Raising the motor fuel tax to cover the total cost of roads would raise fuel prices, promoting denser (more mass-transit-friendly) living patterns.

    "The true strength of our nation comes not from the might of our arms or the scale of our wealth, but from the enduring power of our ideals." - Barack Obama

    by HeyMikey on Wed Sep 07, 2011 at 10:48:01 AM PDT

    •  Sometimes (0+ / 0-)

      Streets, and cops who spend most of their time managing traffic, are paid out of general tax revenue in a lot of cities. Chicago is one.

      You get some state routes, and some federal routes, but most of the streets are the city's responsibility.

      Corporations are people; money is speech.
      1984 - George Orwell

      by Frank Palmer on Thu Sep 08, 2011 at 12:06:04 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

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