What Libertarians Talk About When They Talk About Transportation Reform

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.”

The “other stuff” line got under the skin of Bill Lind, head of the American Conservative’s Center for Public Transportation, who objected to the notion that all transit systems are alike, and even more so to the notion that they are all equally undeserving of federal funds. Lind couldn’t even make it all the way through the remarks given by Ed Braddy from the anti-smart growth American Dream Coalition, only the third speaker of the day. (He stormed out in the middle of Braddy’s talk.)

To Braddy’s eyes, a nation where 90 percent of households own at least one automobile is no more alarming than the widespread ownership of cellular phones, laptop computers, and washing machines. “I don’t see dependency,” Braddy said. “I see utility and quality of life.”

Rather than having highways cross-subsidize transit, Braddy, like Korin, is a proponent of Mobility Vouchers, a mode-neutral subsidy to low-income earners, giving them extra cash to spend on their choice of transit, car-sharing, van-pooling, or any other form of transportation. This would presumably eliminate some equity issues raised by hiking transit fares on underutilized lines, and the free market would take it from there — and, sure, that extra cash could go toward the lease or purchase of an automobile, too.

Furthermore, he elaborated, transit is a messy, smelly, potentially dangerous way to get around, as evidenced by a montage of newspaper headlines describing indecent behavior on buses and subways. (That’s where Lind couldn’t take it anymore. “Where are the headlines about people killed in car accidents?” he bellowed on his way out. After all, almost 33,000 people died on America’s roads last year. His point is well taken.)

“We at the American Conservative Center for Public Transportation absolutely and unequivocally support federal dollars, including from the Highway Trust Fund, for mass transit,” Lind’s colleague Glen Bottoms told me later in an email. (Perhaps illustrating Braddy’s equation of cars with other useful technology, Lind possesses neither an email address nor a computer.) “The mantra that the gas tax is a user fee is merely a guise for the highway lobby to justify consuming all available transportation dollars.”

Conspicuously absent from much of the discussion about transit was Korin’s initial point about pricing: If one mode is indeed underpriced, what would happen to modal split if prices suddenly reflected true costs? Finally, Darnell Grisby, director of policy development and research for the American Public Transportation Association, made the point that just as there are benefits to transit that aren’t quantified as such, the lack of transit carries unquantified costs.

However, instead of a “hear, hear,” Grisby received push-back from the American Bus Association’s Daniel Hoff, who likened taxation of road travel to cover hidden costs to taxation of McDonald’s to cover the cost of widespread obesity. (Mercifully, Grisby and Korin were able to steer the discussion away from food policy.)

There was more disagreement than agreement among the market conservatives assembled at the Mobility Choice roundtable, but there was widespread agreement, if not consensus, that federal transportation money should be directed away from transit and non-motorized transportation, either by simply funneling it all back into highways or getting Washington out of transportation funding altogether. Highway construction and maintenance could be left to state-instituted taxes and tolls, and transit would exist only where profitable for the systems’ private owners and operators.

If it sounds familiar, it should — these are the kinds of proposals that were repeatedly defeated in this year’s House and Senate amendment vote-a-thons. If this is the loudest alternative message to the traditional environmental/climate change/public health arguments for transportation reform, and it’s truly gaining traction in Congress, as Korin suggests, it will only serve to increase the intransigence on both sides.

“Change is coming and I don’t think it will be the vision that Ed Braddy or Shirley Ybarra contemptuously articulate,” Glen Bottoms assured me. “Nothing is more powerful than the status quo and the forces that benefit from the status quo.  They will fight tenaciously to preserve their place at the trough. Maybe this is why the debate is so sharp and, in many cases, divorced from reality — and civility.”

  • Ben, lot of good conversation starters packed in one article. I am not very familiar with the panelists who call themselves libertarians. But speaking a bit more broadly, I’ve encountered several free market enthusiasts who wholeheartedly support what we now call sustainability or livability concepts. And that shouldn’t shock us. Good, common sense design has a track record of boosting local economy. Sure, there are many debates to be had about funding sources and the level of government intervention. But I would argue design concepts like complete streets, bike superhighways, etc. are completely compatible with libertarian philosophy. 

  • Ron Kilcoyne

    One question asked but not really answered in the article is what would happen if we truly ended all subsidy for all modes of transportation? Has anyone done research to figure out how much it would cost to drive or use transit, take an intercity train or bus or even fly? There are three tiers. Tier one is all of the current expenditures for capital, maintenance  and operations including traffic control devices, lights, plowing and traffic enforcement ( the latter specified items are often keep out of analysis that compares the percent of user fees covering the cost of highway infrastructure). Tier two are the additional expenditures to maintain all infrastructure in a state of good repair. Tier 3 adds the “external” costs – impact on the environment, lost tax revenues, etc. Everything would be damn expensive, but could transit compete if roadways were truly not subsidized and particularly if the all three tiers are applied. It will never happen in my lifetime but it is good to have this data for every time a libertarian advocates transit pay its own way. While we are at it we will need to end parking subsidies (which typically are private subsidized). And would those using non motorize conveyances be allowed to use facilities for free

  • Ed Braddy

    What you didn’t mention is that my “transit is messy” piece, which led to Bill Lind’s stormy departure punctuated with f-bombs – something truly “divorced from civility” (in Glen Bottoms own words) in that environment – is that I merely extended Lind’s SAME argument from the previous year, which your blog covered (“Buses vs. Rail” Feb 11, 2011).

    Last year Bill suggested there were limitations to transit because of “the stink factor” and that luring affluent people out of cars requires a move to rail, not rubber. Again, Lind: “You can call it rational or irrational – it’s a mixture of both – but it’s a basic fact of life.” This viewpoint was embraced by most of the Smart Growth crowd.

    All I did was show that the same criticism of rubber tire transit (embraced by Lind and other rail boosters) equally applies to rail transit. It’s not an argument against any kind of mass transportation (indeed, the private bus operators of the ABA don’t seem to have this problem), but it is a consistent assessment of transit’s limitations.

    One can be close-minded, push transformative (and expensive) rail projects, then wonder why so few people climb on board (and later lecture the regular folks on why they’re not sophisticated enough to appreciate elite ambitions) … or we can address the limitations and adjust policy for more realistic conditions.

  • I agree with the Libertarian “user pays” approach *to a point*.  That point is where they define “payment.”  If – for example – all highway users paid tolls immediately upon using each and every highway – tolls equivalent to the cost of building and maintaining the highway – it would be a “user pays” system. 

    BUT… it wouldn’t be perfect, because there are what economists call “externalities” – costs incurred by people who didn’t agree to the transaction.  These would include more obvious costs such as air pollution and noise pollution from cars on the highways, but also less obvious things such as the individuals living in the neighborhoods bisected by major highways – highways that prevent non-car traffic from crossing them easily.  Additionally, an already-built highway biases future construction in favor of things that interface with the highway easily – i.e. more highways, on/off-ramps, etc.

    I’m sure there are multiple ways of dealing with externalities, but my issue is that many in the more libertarian-leaning crowd simply pretend they don’t exist – and THAT isn’t something I’m willing to go along with.

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