Ron Paul: Stop Subsidizing Highways, Let “Transits” Flourish

Before the Iowa caucuses, we wrote briefly about the candidates’ positions on transportation, but we’d missed this tidbit. (Thanks to an anonymous reader for bringing it to our attention.)

In this video from 2009, Ron Paul responds to a supporter’s angst about light rail – he wants to oppose anything that was built with government money but it’s just so darn useful! Paul’s response is nuanced and quite refreshing (if also detached from political reality).

After declaring that he’s never been on the DC metro and doesn’t plan to ever use it, Paul muses about what would have happened if there had never been “government interference” in transportation:

First, if you didn’t have government subsidized highways, at least at the federal level – and have all these wonderful superhighways sailing from city to city and downtown – there would have been a greater incentive for the market to develop transits, trains going back and forth. Before the government got involved, before Penn Central and these other railroads were destroyed by regulations and union wages and featherbedding, we did have private transportation. By subsidizing highways and destroying mass transit, we ended up with this monstrosity.

He said subsidized transit is wasteful, since it spends more than it makes, and that makes it morally “wrong.” But still, his point is an interesting one: Transit is subsidized, in part, because it has to compete with highly-subsidized roadways. If we didn’t subsidize those roads, they would cost more to use – Paul puts in a plug for tolling – and been on a more level playing field with other modes. Ryan Avent wrote something similar on this blog right around the time Rep. Paul made this video.

Would Paul’s free-market utopia really result in a better transportation system — or a better anything? We all have our own opinions on that. But it’s nice to see that he gets that roads don’t pay for themselves, and that his vision is mode-inclusive: If only we’d kept government out of it, he said, “We would have had less fancy highways, more mass transits, more interstate highways that would have been privately owned.”

Of course, the world doesn’t run according to the principles that Paul espouses, and so his fierce opposition to public transportation funding has to be evaluated in the real world, where highways are propped up by enormous subsidies. In the end, Paul’s record on transit funding, fuel efficiency, greenhouse gas emissions treaties, carbon taxes, and land use restrictions for conservation still adds up to one abysmal environmental position.

35 thoughts on Ron Paul: Stop Subsidizing Highways, Let “Transits” Flourish

  1. The more I read your reports from DC, the more I am convinced that NO federal money for ANY transportation is the best outcome transit can hope for.

    “By subsidizing highways and destroying mass transit, we ended up with this monstrosity.”

    Right!  Until the auto oriented generations die off lose control of our institutions, the federal government is not going to reverse this.  But it could stop digging the hole.

    Put the massive subsidies for owner-occupied suburban housing in the same category.  They are being added to as we speak, to prop up the prices younger generations would have to pay for them.

  2. Of course, the railroads got massive subsidies in the form of free land from the government.  So we have a history of the government subsidizing all kinds of transportation, whether the end result is called “private transportation” on public highways, or “public transportation” on private railways.

  3. This sounds sensible on face, but he is only saying it because it dovetails with his own delusional ideology. Though I guess it’s a step up from the denial you find with most randroids, the ones who believe that highways are somehow profitable.

    There is no such thing as subsidy-free transportation, and governments wouldn’t need to exist if there were. Governments have strategic interest in controlling trade routes, and that’s as true today as it was for the Romans/Byzantines, Greeks, Egyptians, United Kingdom of Israel and Judah, and even Mesopotamia.  And it’s true today, with the USA, EU, China, India, and other countries. Why?  Because their very ability to exist is tied up in their ability to, at a minimum, tax trade and move armies.

    And this is even true at the city level, where the flow of goods and services is highly dependent on a strong local transportation system.

  4. I do not agree with Ron Paul’s stance on the role of government, or his free market economics but I will be voting for him and this article is a great example of why. Firstly, I believe that the benefits from a Paul presidency to civil rights and foreign policy would be gigantic and perhaps immediate. To me, these are the most important issues today with  horrible acts like SOPA and NDAA winding their way through congress and being signed into law. Secondly, I dont think the president has the power to do crazy things like strike all regulation down, kill the EPA without congress, etc (ron pauls strict view on separation of powers should support this) and thirdly, nuance:

    Clearly he takes a different stance on public transportation than myself  – and probably a lot of other people that read this blog – but I respect that he is one of the only politicians (and I suspect that only presidential candidate) that will acknowledge that the reason we don’t have a robust transit system is massive government subsidies to highways and other automobile related items. Where we differ is he thinks government subsidies are always bad, and I think they can be good. He also took a similar nuanced position of the repeal of glass steagal which he voted AGAINST because he thought it would cost the taxpayers money (basically I think he thinks FDIC is bad (I disagree…) but that if the FDIC is going to exist we shouldn’t be letting the banks gamble with taxpayer money, hence the vote against destroying a regulation)

    Anyways, long rant. Vote Ron Paul!

    |PS – election is a long ways away and I reserve the right to change my vote 😉 |

  5. Ron Paul twists the truth for the benefit of keeping the highways far away from certain key properties in Washington, D.C.

    That he has never even used WMATA while serving within Washington, D.C. indicates a man seriously out of touch- as if buses etc run fine on dirt roads.  I am sure that Ron Paul, though in ways a step in the right direction, will equivocate to water down his message to nothings, eg stating that drug offenders in federal prison should be released, yet qualifying that with the term “drug use” hence meaning no releases as those in fed prison are there for PWITD and not mere use.

  6. Paul’s got the history wrong. Private industry gleefully destroyed their streetcars and rail lines and switched to oil-powered and rubber-tired buses starting in the 1940s.

  7. Always noteworthy to see a Republican (or any politician for that matter) accurately refer to the car-and-highway-dominated American transportation system as a “monstrosity”.  But it wasn’t government intervention as such that created it – it was the specific intervention of the mid-twentieth century urban/suburban highway, and all that flowed from it.   The big railroads – and the subway and elevated companies, not to mention streetcar operators – also required government intervention. Governments preserved or obtained rights-of-way and then turned them over, through consents or deeds, to transit operators.    This is what you might call public-private partnership, but it was built on far-sighted, interventionist, development-oriented planning like the NYC street grid plan.
    It’s worth calling out that the reference to “Penn Central” being “destroyed by regulation” is a not-so-veiled attack on certain historic preservation laws/Supreme Court rulings.  (Landmarks preservation laws in New York City were ruled not to be takings in the important Penn Central  case, built on cases affirming that zoning is also not a taking.)  

  8. @f9b2cb395abd5a101456b3b0a40912e1:disqus Yes! – Eliminating the federal gas tax – the price of oil is going to do more than any tax would to discourage driving over the next decades.  Let states and counties do the funding.  Get the transit/road debate out of the ideological DC climate.

  9. Just because someone doesn’t like public subsidies for highways/car culture, that doesn’t mean that their views are refreshing. Paul doesn’t realize that the ability to move is a public good and thus should be handled by public institutions. His views aren’t detached from political reality, they are flat out delusional.

  10. Private, non-subsidized, profitable, highly-functional, passenger rail does work very well in Japan.

    The problem with Paul’s thinking (as with much of his thinking), though, is the “how do you get there from here?” issue.  Just because it can work well doesn’t mean it’s easy to transition there from the U.S.’s current messed up dysfunctional reality.  Doing so would involve massively changing the current infrastructure, city layouts, and people’s lifestyles.

    With enough will, perseverance, and clear thinking (uh-oh…), maybe it can be done, but it will take a long time, and doing it without massive societal upheaval will probably require a lot of government guidance—and yes, cash (Ron Paul: “Oh, never mind then.”)…

    It is nice to see a well-known politician saying this, and I don’t think Ron Paul’s exactly a nutter, but he does seem to suffer from the common libertarian malady of having good ideas in the abstract but seeming to gloss over very real difficult issues of implementation.

    There are lots of local minima, and the “widespread private rail public transit” minimum may be much deeper than the “massive publicly funded highways everywhere” minimum—but going from one to the other probably involves a lot of climbing…

  11. The Libertarian Conundrum – government should only exist for the common defense, but how can it move troops without its own infrastructure?  Would we, the people, want to rely on private highways charging tolls should troops be required to mobilize?  What about the lack of eminent domain to acquire right of way?  How cost effective would that be for private industry to build direct routes without government assistance?

    Libertarianism is a fantasy – it exists nowhere in the real world we all live in.  There is no Taggart Transcontinental, nor was there ever.  Ron Paul is technically correct about the government subsidizing highways, but he conveniently forgets why we did it and which one of his free market heroes was leading the charge.  Why do Libertarians always want to go back in time and presume to know the outcome of a decision we did not make and offer their insightful solutions using the altered past as their starting point?

    The relevant question is “how do we get there from here?”  How do we make the true cost of operating individual automobiles the responsibility of the owner?  How will that impact the individual with no alternative transportation choices available to him in the meantime?

    It’s one thing to have an ideology or take a principled stance toward solving a problem.  But when the solution can’t be developed because we’re starting in the present rather than the point in the past where the problem began, it’s just another example of someone who has no ideas or problem-solving skills.  Why vote for someone who has all the answers, but doesn’t have a clue as to how to implement any of them?

  12. I agree with Ron Paul that we should end the subsidy for highways, but our similarities end there.

    Given the abundance of positive externalities of transit (reduced sprawl, reduced congestion, increased land values, reduced pollution, etc.) versus the many negative externalities of highways, it makes a lot of sense for the government to subsidize one and not the other. Any economic discussion that does not even consider externalities would fail economics 101.

    Also, does Ron Paul not drink water provided by a public utility? When he uses the toilet, does he not flush his pee into a public sewer? Does he not use public electricity? Does he not drive his car on public streets in DC? This guy’s a nut, and his dogmatic libertarianism is pretty anti-urban if you ask me.

  13. Yeah, dammit, Why can’t Ron Paul just stick within the left/right discussion limits of Obama and Boehner that ensures no change ever happens

  14. “Yes! – Eliminating the federal gas tax – the price of oil is going to do more than any tax would to discourage driving over the next decades.” 

    I’d keep the gas tax and just eliminate the federal transportation funding.  Convert it to an “atmosphere usage fee.”  If they don’t adjust it for inflation, and if people shift to alternatives, it is going away as a revenue source in the long run anyway.

  15. DC had an effective electric streetcar system, entirely private, before it was killed off by direct Congressional action in the 50s.  So yeah, it existed.  Before the electric streetcar, there were horse streetcars providing transportation.  

  16. Paul doesn’t realize that the ability to move is a public good and thus should be handled by public institutions. ”
    So why was it so much easier to get anywhere in DC before the government got involved?  The public institutions you tout ripped out all our streetcars and inserted highways running through the middle of the city.  And I would point out, that happened in cities all over America, by politicians bought and paid for by Detroit auto makers. “Electric streetcars—trams outside North America—once were the chief mode of public transit in scores of North American cities. Most municipal systems were dismantled in the mid-20th century”

  17. What I think Ron Paul dissenters are missing here are the positive side-affects of his ideology. Despite what you think about the role of government in transportation, what I feel a lot of people are failing to see is that Ron Paul speaks specifically about the role of the FEDERAL government – not your state government. He expresses a deep opposition to the federal government meddling in the affairs of states. So while I disagree with a lot of his personal beliefs, I’m interested in the possible side-effects of his policies.

    A Ron Paul presidency, as I understand it, would aim to basically eliminate federal income tax (by eliminating federal spending). As a Californian, this would free up the 28% of the income that you pay to the federal government, that our state has to fight to get back. Even if this freed the state of California to get 20% of our income instead of the 8% they get now, we’d eliminate our deficit and be free to pursue a lot of our progressive ideals with or without the approval of Washington.

    Who do you think would be better at using that money for the issues that matter to streetsbloggers? The federal government, or the state of California? Maybe living in a progressive state has made me a bit callused to the well-being of states that don’t share my beliefs, but personally I’m feeling a bit tired of having to go through the federal government to spend our money.

  18. The problem with this kind of uber-federalism is that there are no border controls between states. Therefore what you will have happen is a race to the bottom as federal standards go out the window. At least now there is a minimum standard for things nationwide – basically Ron Paul would exarcebate the “Big Sort” that is going on, but cause even more instability to the country because we all share the same foreign borders and currency.

  19. Without strict federal restrictions California wouldn’t have to spend billions on an orphan HSR segment in the Central Valley. I wrote a paper about the Interstate Highway System in 2009, and reading it again, I am still amazed how much federal involvement in the interstates have screwed with the ability of states and counties to make local transportation decisions.

    I am a Paul supporter but I would make the argument that transit should remain subsidized due to positive externalities, but as it stands our fares are incredibly low and service remains uncompetitive with driving. 

    Stop subsidizing highways (there are enough of them already), raise the fares to at least 50% farebox recovery and subsidize the rest. Provide deep discounts for those who can prove the need for mostly subsidized passes. 

  20. Ron Paul is running for President, not Emperor.  His platform is based on letting states pursue their own paths.  If the people in NY, NJ, or CA want to subsidize transit, they’re free to do so through their states – the federal government would not stop them. 
    He’s pointing out that taking money from taxpayers in all 50 states, and then allocating that money based on which states have the most influential congressmen (and, of course, the most influential lobbyists) is horribly inefficient, and less representative of the people’s actttual preferences than doing this at the state level.

    As to whether federal rules provide better regulation than state or
    local regs, Streetsblog itself noted the waste and inefficiency of the one-size-fits-none nature of
    federal rules:

  21. “Stop subsidizing highways (there are enough of them already)”

    Most untrue, starting with Washington DC that has much of its system unjustly cancelled for political reasons having nothing to do with environmentalism and everything to inside the Beltway politics that must be addressed if we are ever to pull out of the greater, Georgetown University induced spin:

    I don’t trust Ron Paul and see him as simply a lesser of the evils alternative to the utterly unacceptable candidates as Romney, Gingrich or Sanatorium

  22. Canada has no national transit or highway program. How has that worked out? Somehow the provinces have connected their roads- even between Ontario and Quebec. The big cities all have good transit systems paid for with provincial, local and a high % of fare box revenue. Based on the experience in Canada Paul is right.

  23. I had to laugh at Paul’s comment “before Penn Central and these other railroads were destroyed by
    regulations and union wages and featherbedding, we did have private
    In fact those “private” railroads only existed because the Governement gave them massive subsidies, like free land grants 10 square miles for every mile of track laid.

    And about those “regulations,” I am sure that Paul would have been eager to work for the railroad before those regulations helped reduce the rates of death and injury by railroad workers.

  24. Nancy,

    And the Fed marked that debt paid in full after WWII, because of the RR’s handling of troop & supply movments during the war; ergo, no subsidy.

  25. He has point. If federal government was out of the picture, then transport funding would come from state and cities. And hopefully in new york there would be so much more money available for transit.

  26. most people misinterpret Ron Paul’s statements and forget that he alone as POTUS would obey the constitution, meaning he would not force his will upon the American people if defeated or over ridden by congress.  Ron Paul would use every inch of his constitutionally ordained powers to stop unconstitutional practices by other branches, rein in spending, and curtail the dilution of our armed forces around the globe while the homeland rots.  Ron Paul has said that many of these programs would take years to wind down on the road to being phased out simply so society and the workforce can adjust.  Why should all states send so much money to Washington only to have Washington pick the winners and losers before giving the money back to some?  How much money gets wasted in that political and bureaucratic process? I believe that the detractors are those who are in power with and/or are invested in the current federal systems because they see what the American tax payers would gain by having more local control over the spending of their tax dollars as their loss.

  27. Amazing write-up! This could aid plenty of people find out more about this particular issue. Are you keen to integrate video clips coupled with these? It would absolutely help out. Your conclusion was spot on and thanks to you; I probably won’t have to describe everything to my pals. I can simply direct them here!

  28. Tanya, why would you base Ron Paul’s environmental record on not approving a carbon tax or greenhouse treaties? If you look deep into these seemingly great “face value” proposals, you will see that they harm everyone, including the environment in the long run.

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