Damian Ortega, False MovementShana Tova loyal Transit Pass readers.  I welcome you all back and wish you all a happy and healthy new year.  In Sunday’s New York Times, long-time columnist Thomas Friedman wrote about the necessity of a hike in the gasoline tax.  Friedman challenges the masculinity of the nation, saying essentially that even the French have more courage to confront their problems than we do.

But are we really that tough? If the metric is a willingness to send troops to Iraq and Afghanistan and consider the use of force against Iran, the answer is yes. And we should be eternally grateful to the Americans willing to go off and fight those fights. But in another way — when it comes to doing things that would actually weaken the people we are sending our boys and girls to fight — we are total wimps. We are, in fact, the wimps of the world. We are, in fact, so wimpy our politicians are afraid to even talk about how wimpy we are.

Friedman goes on to say that America needs a gasoline tax because it would reduce our dependence on foreign oil, spur energy innovation and investment in alternative energies and improve some of our foreign policy issues (and, oh, people might drive less).

Such a tax would make our economy healthier by reducing the deficit, by stimulating the renewable energy industry, by strengthening the dollar through shrinking oil imports and by helping to shift the burden of health care away from business to government so our companies can compete better globally. Such a tax would make our population healthier by expanding health care and reducing emissions. Such a tax would make our national-security healthier by shrinking our dependence on oil from countries that have drawn a bull’s-eye on our backs and by increasing our leverage over petro-dictators, like those in Iran, Russia and Venezuela, through shrinking their oil incomes.

Friedman and I differ on how to spend the money from a gasoline tax.  He would use most of it on the defecit and healthcare.  I would put a gasoline tax toward improving our transportation infrastructure.  However, that’s small chickens compared to the notion of actually having a gasoline tax.

Americans, since the advent of large road building projects and the AAA and truckers’ unions have depended on largely free roads.  Of course there is no such thing as a free road, it gets paid for somehow.  But Americans have never really had to think hard how their roads get paid for.  On the other hand we’re all too well aware of the cost of public transportation, in the form of a fare.  But roads don’t have fares largely, it’s just pay the cost of a car and the gasoline and go driving. There aren’t even significant car taxes or licensing fees to pay for the upkeep of roads.  We like our big government, just not paying for it.

However, a gasoline tax is incredibly important, if for no other reason than we need to wean people from gasoline and cars because they will eventually be largely unaffordable if we keep driving at our current pace.  The whole notion of auto-based cities and suburbs and sprawling exurbs need to become ideas of the past.  The car cannot and should not be eliminated, but this country needs to emphasize the urban, and the car is not a significant part of our urban future.

There is no debating that our country is growing; the US census estimates there will be 392 million people in the country by 2050.  Those new people have to live somewhere, and the formula of quarter acre lots in the suburbs is not sustainable.  We should not and cannot raze the suburbs, but we can make sure that our cities are beacons for the next generation.  In order to do so the transportation networks must be better, more thorough, reliable and affordable.  A gasoline tax would go a long way towards helping to create those necessary infrastructure improvements.

One final thought, how about tax breaks for car sharing?  If the idea is to get people to drive less and own fewer cars, what better way than supporting car sharing systems with essentially subsidized gas?

I have been trying to cover Edward Glaeser’s weak posts on the Economix blog regarding high speed rail investment.  Ryan Avent at DC Streets blog has been doing a wonderful job breaking down the intellectual dishonesty of Glaeser’s work.   To add to points I have already raised, he writes:

Glaeser’s analysis assumes no population growth — he bases ridership on current metropolitan populations — and no shift in mode share over time, despite the fact that both Houston and Dallas have rates of transit ridership well below similar-sized cities (suggesting that with growth, transit’s share will increase) and are rapidly constructing new systems to facilitate greater transit use.

If one adjusts anticipated ridership figures to correct for these errors, and if one uses a more realistic figure for the value of business traveler time, then benefits appear to come quite close to or exceed costs of construction.

and

Glaeser makes more mistakes as he goes on. He appears to use the fuel efficiency for passenger cars — 22 miles per gallon — even though nearly half of the nation’s households vehicle fleet consists of light trucks, which average only 18 miles per gallon.

If you like what you see, you can see Avent take on Eric Morris (of Freakonomics fame) as well and the assumptions he writes about regarding transportation in the Times.

Houston

Forgive me, but I am beginning to lose my temper with Edward Glaeser and his discussion of high speed rail’s benefits in the United States in the Economix blog on the New York Times website.  His work seems intellectually dishonest, at best, as he seems to be out to support a conclusion, not make a real finding of fact.  This starts with his desire to use a Dallas-Houston link as his example, again.  He justifies this decision by arguing at least he isn’t discussing the proposed link between Oklahoma City and Dallas.  Honestly, how many times in the national high speed rail discussions does Oklahoma City come up?  We tend to focus on California, the Chicago area and the Northeast Corridor.

Here is my itemized discussion of the points I find most troubling:

- Dallas currently has 1.3 million people and the metropolitan area has 6.3 million residents.  Houston is home to 2.2 million people and the metropolitan area has 5.7 million people.  Given the geographic locations of the cities, birth rates, and the nature of their economies it is relatively certain to say these cities are going to continue to grow for the foreseeable future.   Glaeser misses the point in discussing the cost of new infrastructure.  These two cities are going to need to build infrastructure anyway, whether it is new roads and airports, or just keeping up the constantly-worn roads they already have.  Glaeser in no way addresses whether it is better to build new railroads or new highways, rather he just compares new rails to existing roads.  He likewise fails to mention that high speed rail may spawn more railroads in the area whereas more highway will spawn more roads.

- It is almost criminally negligent to not point out that energy prices are not stable.  If trains are in fact more efficient that is a very big deal, as energy prices are sure to rise as oil prices inevitably rise again.  Moreover, planes are fossil fuel dependent.  And, while cars in theory could run on energy sources other than fossil fuels, they largely do not right now, especially in Houston and Dallas.  That said, trains have the clear advantage of being electronically powered, which means they can run on any resource that powers the grid, including wind, water, solar and other renewable resources.  This makes trains far more green than planes, and automobiles at the moment.

- This is a bone more with economics than with Glaeser in particular, but is it possible to really measure environmental damage only in dollars and cents?  Is the value of a good environment really reduced to counting bills with Andrew Jackson on the face?  Any effort that can help reduce negative environmental effects should be valuable and while efficiency is important, if it is not inefficient it should not trivialized either.  Lots of little changes equal a larger change.

- Lastly, Glaeser ignores any value of work done on trains.  People largely do not do work in cars, and work on planes is challenging.  However, trains with their leg room, cafe cars, and access to wireless networks can be great places to work, even with your peers!  Of course it’s usually easier to get from downtown to the train than the plane, so work can go on longer in the office too.

- Given that Glaeser said he will address land use issues in his next post, I will resist the desire to pillory him on how people get to train stations and airports and the nature of sprawl.

I am really disappointed in these posts.  I am not quite sure who Glaeser think his audience is, but the quality of his intellectual output in these blog posts is insulting to his readers.

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