There’s more than one way to approach transportation reform. One is to believe that an ideal transportation policy promotes the use of modes that are environmentally sustainable and which foster livable cities, while those that perpetuate overdependence on automobiles do neither.
Moderator Anne Korin (center) and participants at Thursday's Mobility Choice Roundtable. (Photo: Johanna Moss/IAGS)
Then there is another camp, which approaches transportation from a micro, rather than macro, perspective. In this camp, America’s transportation choices are seen as a market where providers compete across the various modes for the privilege of meeting each individual’s transportation needs. A good transportation policy, in this view, is one that makes such a market function as efficiently as possible, keeping costs low for travelers and profits high enough for providers to ensure continued service without excessive government subsidy or regulation.
Here, the user-pays-user-benefits principle is sacrosanct, and fiscal self-sufficiency is paramount. It’s transportation reform for the libertarian set, who are just as likely as many liberals to categorize current transportation policy as deeply flawed — though they are just as likely to disagree about how.
That’s why the Mobility Choice Coalition — convened by the Institute for the Analysis of Global Security — hosts roundtable discussions about the issue of transportation reform as seen from the second camp. The most recent one was last Thursday. Previous roundtables, which Streetsblog has covered in the past, have covered the viability of private transit, the comparative advantages of bus vs. rail transit, and the idea of incorporating the cost of foreign oil wars into the price of highway travel.
“One of the key issues for us is pricing, really, across the board,” Anne Korin, the roundtable’s moderator, told Streetsblog. “Get the pricing right, and a lot of stuff will follow.” When one mode is priced unnaturally low, the market isn’t operating as efficiently as it could.
But pricing isn’t the whole story. Congress, you may have heard, is working on a new surface transportation bill, and there’s plenty of federal spending that has to happen before changes to pricing can be instituted. Korin can already see her message at work there.
“You definitely saw, in response to transportation language in both chambers, a huge emphasis on the user-pays principle,” Korin said. “First the response to H.R. 7 [which used energy royalties to pay for transportation spending], and the Senate bill which dips into general funds [for everything]. Either way, we think it’s very, very important to maintain the user-pays principle, and that message has gotten a good hearing.”
Last Thursday’s discussion began with a list of priorities for transportation policy reform, but it was clear from the outset that there are still deep divisions among cost-minded transportation thinkers. Those divisions often occur around whether gas tax revenue — or vehicle-miles-traveled fees once they’re implemented — and tolls should be used exclusively for roads or whether they can be used to fund infrastructure for other modes as well, which some see as undermining the user-pays principle.
Former Virginia Secretary of Transportation Shirley Ybarra, now of the Reason Foundation, said, “America needs a large increase in highway investment,” but opined that too much existing roadway revenue is being spent on what she called “other stuff.” Rather than breaking down the funding silos for each mode, Ybarra advocated the complete separation of those silos, and the insistence that each mode be entirely user funded. “Mica was on the right track” when he tried to separate transit from the Highway Trust Fund, she said — that is, until “transit went off the deep end.”