Monday, June 18, 2007

McIlheran Omits Facts In Transit Posting

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel's Pat McIlheran leaves out some basic facts in a posting on his blog (the entire text is at the bottom) about transportation costs.

He writes these lines:

"Roads are paid for by taxes drivers pay when they use the roads. Transit is paid for by taxes drivers pay when they don't use transit and by taxes everyone pays when they don't necessarily use it, either."

His implication: drivers are paying for transit - - something they do not use - -and somehow that's wrong.

What he leaves out is this:

While roads are partially-paid for by gas taxes, many road construction, repair, patrolling and maintenance expenses are paid through local property tax and state income tax collections.

Including contributions by taxpayers who do not drive - - the same way that drivers who do not use transit contribute to those systems. In other words, both roads and transit are paid for by the public, with some more direct contribution from users.

Drivers pay gas taxes, transit riders pay fares, and neither contribution covers the full cost of the capital and operating costs of both systems, including those systems that individuals choose not to use.

It's also why property owners without children contribute to public schools, or why healthy people support municipal health departments, and why homeowners who never set their houses on fire support the shared resource called The Fire Department.

That's how society works.

McIlheran's entire post is here.

MONDAY, June 18, 2007, 10:40 a.m.
Pay the fare, even if you don't ride

As rail transit's fans continue to say that it's a no-brainer, an utterly sensible "investment," it's worth remembering that the dividends get paid, regularly, in the opposite direction of usual investments.

That is, you have to keep "investing."

A displaced Wisconsinite now living in Chicago emails to note this news over the weekend: The suburban Chicago bus system, Pace -- that's everything outside the city limits of Chicago -- wants $23 million from the state right now or it'll cut back service on two-thirds of its routes.

Metra, the commuter train system -- that's the one that runs double-decker trains from distant suburbs into downtown -- is already talking about robbing its capital fund of $60 million to make up its operating deficits.

Otherwise, it says, it could raise fares 10% every other year and cut its weekend trains and its service after 9 p.m.

So much for working late.

In total, these two systems and the city of Chicago system, CTA, are $226 million -- that's a quarter of a billion dollars -- in the hole on operating expenses alone just for this year.

They're dunning the state for more money. Illinois' governor says he wants to give $100 million to CTA -- they're the ones who run the El trains and buses in Chicago -- but hasn't said much about the suburban lines.

This isn't to build anything new. This isn't for new tracks or more buses. This is just on top of the operating subsidies taxpayers already kick in: hundreds of millions from the state, as well as more than $700 million a year (that's a pdf) in sales taxes levied on people in six counties in northeastern Illinois.

Even this isn't enough to run the service, so Illinois lawmakers this spring proposed raising the sales tax by $280 million and imposing a new tax on real estate sales in Chicago, among other expedients.

I remind you that, as far as American cities aside from New York go, Chicago is transit paradise. It is as railed-up as a place realistically could be. Its downtown booms. Its rail infrastructure is nearly incomparable. Its park-and-rides are full.

Its commuter trains are dandy and beloved. And it's still sucking taxpayer money at a nearly unfathomable rate.

Rail advocates often respond to this by asking, rhetorically, how much taxpayers must spend to keep up roads for cars. Quite a bit, in Wisconsin, certainly.

But that's money collected specifically from drivers, who pay it via our gas tax.

In Illinois, they additionally pay it via tolls, as well as having a gas tax that, in total, is higher than ours.

Meanwhile, some of that gas tax money gets diverted into transit, as does, in Chicago, money from a sales tax and a car rental tax and another 5% tax on motor fuel sales.

Roads are paid for by taxes drivers pay when they use the roads. Transit is paid for by taxes drivers pay when they don't use transit and by taxes everyone pays when they don't necessarily use it, either.

And at least in one city long used to taking transit, it's requiring more and more taxes than ever just to keep operating the trains.


John said...

"McIlheran omits facts" could be the subtitle to his column.

Anonymous said...

Transit is a drain on taxpayers? Give me a break. Nothing eats up property tax dollars like a road hog. Here are some real facts about transit and highway spending in Wisconsin:

Steve Hiniker
Executive Director
1000 Friends of Wisconsin

James Rowen said...

Thanks to Steve and 1K Friends of Wisconsin. I strongly recommend their organization as authoritative on transportation policy and spending.