Why are roads favoured by the right and trains by socialists?

From Christian Wolmar’s blog: Why are roads favoured by the right and trains by socialists?
An interesting question, I posted a reply, repeated below.

“From the US, I think part of the problem is the definition of “subsidy”. Here, auto users pay a user fee, most of which is in the form of a gas (petrol) tax, that is dedicated (hypothecated) to road construction, and pays in most places essentially 100% of the cost for major roads (freeways, state highways). (Local roads are largely paid for with property tax, but you would have these even without cars). So rather than thinking about it as a public subsidy, it is a service in exchange for a fee. In contrast public transit users pay about 1/3 of the operating cost (and about 0/3 of the capital cost) in most systems, the remainder is paid for out of general funds, dedicated sales taxes, and from highway user fees. The system is thus more subsidized by non-users. Also in the US 90+% of taxpayers are regular auto users, about 1% to 2% are regular transit users, so the cross-subsidy from transit users to highway users when using general revenue is relatively small and the cross-subsidy from highway users to transit users is relatively large. All of which sets the stage for the left/right divide. Things that are subsidized by the general public for the disadvantaged few (and riders of buses generally have much lower incomes than average, trains are different) are consistent with a “left”/Democratic point-of-view. People left to their own devices paying for what they use is a more “right”/Republican point-of-view. Trains, especially commuter trains, have attracted Republican support. This is because the users are well-to-do suburbanites who often vote Republican. Transit advocates endorse this as a way to broaden the base for transit support (though of course it will take resources away from other transit investments).”

3 thoughts on “Why are roads favoured by the right and trains by socialists?

  1. Economists have long criticized the current system of roadway pricing contending user fees should be structured such that those levied on different classes of vehicles reflect the costs borne by governments to provide those vehicles with the opportunity to travel. One such study found that single-unit trucks weighing more than 50,000 pounds contribute in user fees only 40 percent of the estimated costs of their use. Autos contribute 70 percent of their costs; pickup trucks and vans, 90 percent; and single-unit trucks weighing less than 25,000 pounds contribute 150 percent of their costs through the taxes and fees that they pay. (The heaviest combinations, those over 80,000 pounds, pay only half of their cost responsibility. See: James W. March, “Federal Highway Cost Allocation Study,? Public Roads Vol 61(4): 1998.)
    Another found that even though the gas tax is commonly considered a “user fee” drivers only pay about 80 percent of the costs of the roadways. This des not even account for the external costs of driving. (M. A. Delucchi, “Do Motor-Vehicle Users Pay Their Way?,” Transportation Research A 41: 983-1003 (2007).) Other studies show this is true within many states. The opposite is true in most of Europe, however, in that tolls and taxes far exceed the spending on transportation governments. If charges were levied fairly in proportion to the costs imposed by vehicle type and those charges vigorously enforced, and if roads were constructed to more demanding standards, savings in road maintenance and replacement costs over time would be great enough to permit lower user fees for all classes of vehicles.
    Lastly, the note about the share of operating costs that public transit users pay needs more precision as it varies widely across the country as the top 5 rail systems “recover” more than half their costs:
    Fare Revenues Per Total Operating Expenses (Recovery Ratio)
    10 Largest Heavy Rail Systems:
    New York City Transit 67.3
    Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority 61.6
    Port Authority Transit Corporation (New Jersey/Philadelphia) 61.4
    Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA) 58.6
    San Francisco Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) 58.4
    Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) 44.3
    Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA) 43.7
    Port Authority Trans-Hudson Corporation (PATH) 41.0
    Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority (MARTA) 39.2
    Maryland Mass Transit Administration (MTA) 26.3
    10 Largest Bus Systems:
    New Jersey Transit Corporation (NJ Transit) 43.5
    New York City Transit (MTA-NYC Transit) 40.9
    Chicago Transit Authority(CTA) 40.1
    Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA) 37.1
    New Orleans Regional Transit Authority (NORTA) 36.7
    Miami-Dade Transit Agency (MDT) 33.3
    Green Bus Lines, Queens, NY 32.8
    Minneapolis Metro Transit 32.5
    Milwaukee County Transit System 31.7
    Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority (MARTA) 30.9


  2. I posted the following on the original thread
    peezedtee said “This seems to ignore the point that it is not only the users of public transport who benefit from it. Less directly, so does more or less everyone, including motorists, who would find they had a great deal less room on the roads if all the people using buses or trains were instead using cars.”
    There is certainly some congestion externality reduction from transit use. The question is “how much?” “Choice riders” to use modeling jargon, might take their cars. “Captive riders” don’t have that choice, and would possibly walk or bike or carpool (adding little extra traffic) (as we see during transit strikes) or try to work at home or change destinations over the long run if transportation became too difficult in the absence of transit service. The evidence from the Twin Cities (Minneapolis/St. Paul) during the 2004 transit strike is that congestion levels did not noticeably rise. (Certainly many people were inconvenienced, just not motorists). New York during a transit strike would be much different.


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