New York's Transit Crisis, a Vehicle Miles Traveled Tax, and the Rail Fetish

  • Congestion pricing.* It’s fairly rare that I agree with Ryan Avent rather than with Megan McArdle, but the fact that the Ravitch Plan — which called for tolls on the East River and Harlem River bridges and a region-wde payroll tax — was ever taken seriously suggests to me that performance parking, at the very least, is a realistic possibility. The congestion charge as originally conceived might not fly, but some version of it, say variable tolls on the East River bridges, just might.

I’ve seen one excellent alternative to the Ravitch plan, from New York city Comptroller Bill Thompson, a mayoral aspirant. To my chagrin, Thompson opposes the East River tolls, but again, he’s a mayoral aspirant. He does, however, favor a clever car tax in lieu of the insane payroll tax. From the Daily News:

Thompson’s plan would stick all metro-area car owners with supersized-vehicle use taxes based on the weight of their car.

The sliding-scale tax would be in addition to the sliding-scale, weight-based state registration fee they already pay every two years. That means about $200 extra for cars and $400 or more for heavyweights like SUVs.

  • The VMT.* Why does weight matter? It’s not so much the gas mileage issue as the impact of heavier vehicles on roads. A weight-based fee — and, for that matter, a vehicle miles traveled tax like the one floated by Ray LaHood — is a real user fee. Gas taxes don’t capture the fact that highly fuel-efficient vehicles still cause wear and tear on our shared public infrastructure, and they don’t adequately reflect the damage caused by “super-sized” vehicles. The White House has shot down LaHood’s excellent idea, and transit enthusiasts Ezra Klein and Matt Yglesias were also, I’m sorry to say, opposed. This is despite the fact that Ezra acknowledges the central virtue of the VMT:

It’s also got a nice internal logic: LaHood is arguing for the tax in order to fund infrastructure — and in particular, highway — construction. The heaviest drivers — both in terms of frequency and car weight — exert the heaviest wear-and-tear on the roads. Why shouldn’t they pay?

Matt, in contrast, writes:

When it comes to pricing driving-related activities, it makes sense to charge people from things that actually impose costs on others—burning gasoline, and taking up space on crowded roads—not the mere act of driving.

My ideal would be a weight-based VMT. Oregon, an awesomely experimental state, is on the case.

So how about a gas tax? Jim Manzi has ably pointed out the flaws (actually, his NR piece is best, but I can’t find it online) in the arguments deployed by pro-gas-taxers, and I find his analysis very persuasive. A gas tax isn’t a panacea. I do think a higher gas tax is vastly preferable to CAFE standards, and I wonder if we’d be better placed if we thought of these measures as substitutes. Economist Johannes Van Biesebroeck argued along similar lines in this op-ed on how to most effectively aid the auto industry.

  • The rail fetish.* I love trains. But if we’re going to spend money on trains, we should spend it on

(a) Freight trains, as Phil Longman vividly explains:

In a study recently presented to the National Academy of Engineering, the Millennium Institute, a nonprofit known for its expertise in energy and environmental modeling, calculated the likely benefits of an expenditure of $250 billion to $500 billion on improved rail infrastructure. It found that such an investment would get 83 percent of all long-haul trucks off the nation’s highways by 2030, while also delivering ample capacity for high-speed passenger rail. If high-traffic rail lines were also electrified and powered in part by renewable energy sources, that investment would reduce the nation’s carbon emission by 39 percent and oil consumption by 15 percent. By moderating the growing cost of logistics, it would also leave the nation’s economy 10 percent larger by 2030 than it would otherwise be.

(b) Existing mass transit and

© Cheap, incremental improvements. Ben Adler wrote a terrific item for The Next American City on HSR plans in California.

Many progressives and smart growth advocates have said that California struck a blow for progressive infrastructure construction. …

It’s useful to look at the $42 billion estimated for the high-speed rail project in terms of other public transit projects. The Second Avenue subway line in New York City is projected to cost $16.8 billion to build and will transport 600,000 people daily. That’s 210 million rides per year, many of which are currently carried out by some form of automobile: taxis, cars, or buses. The California high-speed rail line, on the other hand, hopes to have just 55 million trips by 2030. That’s one-third the annual riders for three times the price of construction. What California needs is a Second Avenue Subway equivalent; it may be a network of buses rather than trains, but that seems to me to be the model worth imitating.

And as Adler noted earlier today, it looks like we’re going to get a saner approach to HSR.