Earth to Texas Rail Opponents: NO transportation is free!

Having lived most of my life in Texas, I’m familiar with the bizarre anti-public-transportation movement there.  I understand that building rail is more expensive than building roads but that doesn’t figure in the cost of operating the cars on those roads.  It also doesn’t figure in the economic damage to commercial freight caused by traffic jams and accidents.  (The city of Houston estimated this in the millions of dollars when studying whether or not they needed a “mandatory towing” policy for broken-down cars that were causing traffic jams.  Unsurprisingly, yes, it’s necessary).  Anyway, these points seem lost on rail opponents in Houston and Austin.  I recently was listening to Jeff Ward’s podcast, and his complaint was that — horror of horrors! — the metro rail project there will subsidize rider fare.  I heard no such complaints about taxpayer funds subsidizing roads.  Jeff Ward frequently fancies himself some sort of economics expert.  He’s got some interesting things to say now & then, but let’s be real — he’s a former UT football kicker who entertains on the radio & guest lectures in advertising at UT (not economics).

His harping on the “taxpayer subsidies” of public transportation plays to the common attack on public transportation in Texas.  That is, people need to man up and buy a car, and stop mooching off the government.  That’s all well and good, except that it ignores the costs associated with the alternative (auto transportation).  Specifically, it:

  • Requires expensive taxpayer-subsidized roads that are already full of traffic in Houston and Austin, that have nowhere to expand, and thus are frequently impractical to even build
  • Contributes to urban sprawl, which is a taxation problem in Texas because a disproportionate amount of local government infrastructure is funded by local-city property taxes (income taxes are banned by the state constitution)
  • Completely ignores the per-person costs that people pay for maintaining a car (actual maintenance, but insurance as well)
  • Is bad for economic stability because it promotes inefficient consumption of fossil fuels, which has its own long-term costs.
  • Is arguably bad for the environment, which has its own long-term costs.
  • Completely doesn’t work for poor people who don’t own a car (check out craptastic bus coverage in Houston some time — people forced to commute by bus there frequently spend 3 HOURS going across town, one way).

In reality, I think this is far more basic for Texans than a (faulty) economic argument.  People there really do have a wild-west mentality.  It’s widespread.  The “castle doctrine” (which allows a homeowner/resident to kill someone who trespasses, if the homeowner/resident “believes” that they are in danger), the concealed-handgun proliferation there (I can’t tell you how many times someone told me that they make sure their wife or girlfriend carries a gun in their purse, frequently unlicensed), and the “get your own horse & make the trails wider!” mentality of the anti-rail folks pretty much all can be boiled down to the fact that Texans like to see themselves as folksy Cowboys.  I’m not saying this to denigrate Texans — I love Texas.  But, c’mon, y’all have to separate this mythology of how you’d like to see yourselves from what’s economically wise.

Texas is far more spread out than the Northeast and thus it’s not practical for rail (or even public transit with buses) to completely replace having a car.  However, park-and-ride solutions can actually work.  They have bus-based programs that work like this in Austin and Houston, but ridership is low — primarily because it’s a frustrating experience.  You get on the bus and then basically wait with everyone else on the crowded roads.  If you’ve got your own car already, there’s very little personal incentive to ride the bus.  There’s less stress and it does allow you to eliminate one car from a multi-car family, but you are giving up scheduling freedom with your day.  I don’t blame people for wanting to get a more clear advantage than that.  Hopefully the large-scale metro rail rollout in Austin will succeed, and when people see the convenience and economic advantage of it, they’ll set aside their myth-based biases about public transportation.

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