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That was the main takeaway from a remarkable report just published
by the National Capital Region Transportation Planning Board.
The Board used an intensive “deliberative forum” format to
educate and engage citizen groups.
They looked at congestion in the Washington metro area – obviously a
huge concern – and ways that road pricing could be used to raise money to
improve the system.
The most extensive pricing system – in effect an elaborate
vehicle miles traveled (VMT) tax using GPS – “triggered a strong negative
response…The objections toward this scenario were visceral. Participants found the proposal
overwhelming and unfamiliar, they thought it would be impossible to implement,
and they were concerned about where the money that was raised would go…The
scenario provoked a sense of outrage regarding issues of privacy and government
Wow. And this
was not an instant reaction, but one based on an intensive briefing.
What did these citizens like better? The gas tax!
“People…became much more supportive of gas tax increases
after a lengthy discussion about current funding problems and options for road
pricing. At the beginning of the
forums, 21% of participants thought gas taxes should be raised to pay for
transportation improvements. By
the end, 57% thought they should be raised.”
I believe this report supports my conclusion that many
people continue to underestimate both the public resistance to VMT-type taxes
and the resilience of the gas tax as a revenue source.
I was very happy recently to publicly launch the plan I have
been working on for a new multi-modal transportation hub in Ewing, New
Jersey. The air/rail connection
will fit with Ewing redevelopment plan for a new mixed-use town center on a
brownfields site in this inner-ring suburb (my previous posting here).
The presentation by county and municipal consultant teams was
made to the Mercer County Board of Freeholders (stories here and here) – the local
governing body – who received it warmly.
I was leading the county team (focused on the airport), which has
recommended a new terminal – moved to the town center! – and various other
economic development measures.
The news stories were pretty accurate but missed some of the
exciting possibilities generated by co-locating a new airport terminal (with
growing regional service provided by a new carrier in the market, Frontier
Airlines) and a regional train station (service currently south to
Philadelphia, later north to New York).
Future high quality rapid transit is under consideration from Ewing to
downtown Trenton, the state capital, and to Princeton. The resulting Trenton-Princeton-Ewing
Triangle can have a huge economic leverage effect!
One of the newer ideas being launched for dealing with the
transportation funding crisis is greater use of sales taxes. In recent days, Governor Bob McDonnell
of Virginia, Governor Deval Patrick of Massachusetts, and outgoing AASHTO
president John Horsley have all put proposals on the table. They would all use the sales tax in
some way, but the contents and effects of the proposals varies widely.
The McDonnell proposal, launched in early January, is the
worst of the lot. The proposal, in
brief, is to do away with the state’s motor fuels tax, and replace it with a
bump in the sales tax. The good
news is that it would increase the funding for transportation. Unfortunately, there are a number of
drawbacks. The short list:
The sales tax in general is a very regressive
Eliminating the motor fuels tax removes some
(albeit small) incentives for driving economical cars, using transit, reducing
miles traveled, etc.
It severs the “user fee” link for transportation
Worst, it pits transportation uses directly
against health, education, and other social needs, both now and in the future.
Governor Deval Patrick’s proposal has much more to recommend
it. In his “state of the
commonwealth” address, he proposed reducing the current sales tax from 6.25
percent to 4.5 percent and dedicating all of the proceeds to a “public works
fund” for transportation, school buildings, and other infrastructure. The loss of sales tax revenue to the
general fund would be offset by an increase in the income tax. The existing motor fuels tax would be
retained, possibly with an indexing provision. The increased transportation revenues would be used to pay
for a set of projects and programs outlined in Massachusetts DOT’s recently
published transportation plan, The WayForward: A 21st Century Transportation Plan.
At the federal level, John Horsley, the retiring executive
director of AASHTO, launched a new idea for sales tax financing at his
“farewell” speech at the recent Transportation Research Board annual meeting. The gist of the proposal is the
replacement of the existing federal motor fuels tax with a sales tax on fuels
that would be set at a level which would “restore solvency” to the Highway
Trust Fund and permit continued funding at current levels. He estimates that a tax rate of 8.4
percent on gasoline and 10.6 percent on diesel fuel would accomplish that. Good for John for tackling the big
issue, but frankly I don’t see any advantage in replacing the motor fuels tax
with the sales tax, other than the hope that it will somehow be “enactable.”
As I have said before,
looking for alternatives to the motor fuels tax to fund transportation reminds
me of looking for alternatives to a hammer to drive in nails. You may find something that works, but
the best tool for the job is being overlooked.
You may have seen some recent talk about the possibility of
instituting a carbon tax in this country.
(See for instance a recent Tom Friedman column and a recent Washington Post editorial.) The carbon tax is one of those discussion items that seems to come
in cycles, and the current cycle seems to have been stimulated by the worsening
climate change crisis.
In its “purest” form, the carbon tax has been thought of as
a revenue-neutral way to discourage high-carbon fuel use. That’s the way it works in British
Columbia, where all carbon tax revenues are refunded to taxpayers through
reductions in other taxes. (For
details on the BC system, see Tod Litman’s paper here.)
Now some folks are talking about a carbon tax as a revenue
source for transportation. The
Sightline Foundation people have suggested this at the state level in
Washington state (here) and Senator Ben Cardin has launched the idea as a federal
reauthorization revenue source (see interview here).
I’m still sorting out the pros and cons of a carbon tax for
transportation, but I like the fact that it would send a strong signal that our
national policy needs to vigorously encourage and support sustainable energy
The London underground just turned 150 years old and is
looking pretty good! Sure we can
complain about the shortcomings in the system, and there are some. But that system has been working pretty
darn well for a century and a half, which is a remarkable achievement for any
piece of engineering.
Just try to imagine London without the tube. It seems to me pretty obvious that
London without the tube would be a much worse, and maybe pretty awful, place. I don’t think there is a better example
anywhere of how a well-designed and well-built transport (sic) system can
support a civilized society.
And for many of us, the public history is enriched by our
own personal histories of rides taken and memories cherished.
Two articles in the December edition of Atlantic magazine
highlight the very encouraging and exciting trend of “insourcing” – starting or
relocating manufacturing operations in the United States.
“The Insourcing Boom,” by Charles Fishman, focuses on the
remarkable rebirth of manufacturing at GE’s formerly rusting Appliance Park in
James Fallows’ “Mr. China Comes to America” starts with an
eyewitness account of the social and economic changes underway in Shenzen.
Some common themes on why insourcing is happening:
Labor, as a percentage of total cost in
manufacturing, is declining.
The cost of labor in China is increasing.
The cost of shipping (fossil fuels) is
Some newer manufacturing techniques (especially
3D printing) are better served by small-scale operations.
Perhaps most critically, manufacturers are
becoming more sensitive to the need to accelerate the
design-to-manufacturing-to-shipping cycle and feel that controlling the whole
process in one place with one team (including designers and engineers and
hourly workers) gives the best value.
All great stuff for sustainable economic development in the
How do we in the transportation community respond to these
In recent years, there has been a significant increase in
public investment in freight infrastructure, oriented mainly toward subsidizing
the import economy – what I call the Shenzen-to-Walmart supply chain. Billions of dollars have been pumped
into port improvements and double-stack rail corridors. And certainly there will continue to be
major imports. But a manufacturing
sector that is more domestic, more localized, more oriented toward speed, more
focused on nimbleness, will make demands on the transportation sector that we
are not fully prepared to meet.
More to come on this topic.
And what a better way to start the year than with free
transit! (Photo of Davis Square
Station in Boston, New Years Eve).
So we didn’t go over the cliff (which may or may not have
been a good thing) and have much work to do this year to make our
transportation system, and communities, and our nation better. More about all that to come.
Meanwhile, Happy New Year!
Congratulations to Tri-State Transportation Campaign on
another successful year!
If you’re not familiar with this organization, it is one of
the most effective transportation reform advocacy groups in the country, active
in the tough environment of New York, Connecticut, and New Jersey.
At their recent annual benefit event (when a lot of the
participants were still struggling with the effects of Hurricane Sandy), they
honored Dawn Zimmer, the mayor of Hoboken (whose city was still waterlogged),
Dannel Malloy, the governor of Connecticut, and Steve Ballone, county executive
of Suffolk County, New York. All
three of these individuals have made a really positive impact, and a good deal
of their success can be traced back to the work Tri-State has done in those
How influential is Tri-State? Their former executive director, Kate Slevin, was just
recruited by New York City to be an assistant commissioner at NYCDOT! (Congrats to Kate and also congrats and
best wishes to Veronica Vanterpool on taking the helm at Tri-State.)
If you want to learn something from Tri-State, take a look
at their excellent blog or dive into their ambitious state-by-state STIPfunding analysis.
Another new EV has been officially launched and is scheduled
to show up at showrooms in California and Oregon next summer: the Chevy SparkEV.
Now the Spark is no Tesla – and I haven’t seen any reviews
yet – but the launch of a new moderately priced EV by General Motors is surely
a good sign for the future.
Good News: The Spark is equipped for fast charging, so the
battery can get an 80% charge in 20 minutes at specially-equipped charging
Bad News: The Spark has the new SAE Combo fast charging
connection, so there are now officially two different, distinct, incompatible
fast charging systems in the U.S.
I really don’t know how we got into a VHS vs. Betamax
situation, which seems to me like an unnecessary, self-inflicted handicap at
this stage of EV development, but I hope we can figure out a way to work