Fred Barnes: Americans Mainly Want to Stay in Their Cars

Wider

Adding a few more lanes should do the trick. Photo of the 405: Atwater Village Newbie

After yesterday’s electoral drubbing, the Obama administration will have to deal with a starkly different Congress when they make their expected push for a multi-year transportation bill early next year. We know that some influential House Republicans, like John Mica, don’t necessarily believe that bigger highways will solve America’s transportation problems. And we know that some pro-transit voices in Washington originate from the right. But no one expects the GOP ascendancy to make transportation reform any easier.

For a taste of the right-wing line against transportation reform, check out the election week issue of the Murdoch-owned Weekly Standard. Inside, editor Fred Barnes (under fire recently for accepting speaking fees from the GOP) mounts an attack on just about every federal transportation policy other than highway spending. There’s nothing really conservative about Barnes’s screed — it could have come straight from the pen of an asphalt industry lobbyist. Wondering what a transportation bill would look like if it were reshaped according to what highway boosters believe should be the “core program”? Read Barnes and find out.

He starts by ridiculing Ray LaHood’s speech at the 2010 National Bike Summit, where the transportation secretary said that Americans “want out of their cars, they want out of congestion, they want to live in livable neighborhoods and livable communities.” Barnes disagrees:

LaHood was half right. People hate traffic congestion. But they want to get out of their cars about as much as they want to get stuck behind a bicyclist who rides at a donkey’s pace before running through red lights and stop signs. What people mainly want is to stay in their cars and have LaHood do something to reduce congestion.

Like finance the construction and maintenance of highways and bridges to facilitate the flow of autos and trucks. That, rather than promoting “livability” or “the end of favoring motorized transportation at the expense of nonmotorized,” is the job of the Department of Transportation. Always has been.

This is, basically, his entire argument: People just want to “stay in their cars.” We have zero interest in getting around any other way. According to Fred Barnes, we are perfectly content to drive and drive and drive, as long as we don’t have to put up with all the other people driving. If you believe that, then his cheerleading for highway construction makes a lot of sense.

If being inside our cars is what we’re really all about, by all means lets throw more money down the sinkhole of highway expansion. That will guarantee more quality time inside our cars. Then, a few years later, when we’re in our cars but not enjoying it so much because the new lanes are jammed with traffic again, we’ll repeat the whole expensive process.

But if we’d rather spend more time with our families and loved ones — or, you know, doing actual work instead of commuting — maybe we should try a different way of building our transportation system. According to public opinion research by Transportation for America, 57 percent of Americans would like to spend less time in their cars. Even with our highway-centric system, we’re already voting with our feet: These days, Americans are driving less and opting to walk, bike, and ride transit more than we were at the beginning of the decade.

A cursory internet search reveals that, when Barnes says the job of U.S. DOT has always been to build highways and only highways, he’s just making stuff up. The U.S. DOT mission statement does not mention any particular mode. The department’s job is, in fact, to “serve the United States by ensuring a fast, safe, efficient, accessible and convenient transportation system that meets our vital national interests and enhances the quality of life of the American people, today and into the future.”

So there’s some flexibility here. Now, consider that the Pentagon is under the impression that climate change poses a risk to national security. Or that public health experts peg the annual medical costs imposed by traffic and pollution at more than $200 billion. Or the mounting evidence that car dependence begets obesity and higher medical costs. Or that, according to research by CEOs for Cities, travel times are longest in sprawling metro areas, while areas that pursued smart growth and livability strategies have actually reduced commute times. All of which points to the conclusion that at this moment, the U.S. DOT’s job — providing an efficient transportation system that meets our vital national interests and so forth — is indeed to advance livability and stop promoting motorized transport.

Back to the Barnes highway-building argument. Maybe you’re worried that fighting congestion by building more roads that generate more congestion is not a wise way to spend money. But Fred Barnes isn’t. He is, however, highly concerned about spending on rail:

The stimulus included $8 billion for high-speed projects, again not “paid for.” Now the administration is taking “the next step toward realizing its vision for high-speed rail,” the Department of Transportation said in June, handing out “$2.1 billion in grants to continue the development of high-speed intercity passenger rail corridors.”

On top of that, there’s talk in Washington of spending $50 billion more on high-speed trains. Where the funding would come from is anybody’s guess, but LaHood is fully on board. High-speed rail between cities is needed “so people can get out of their cars,” he said in an interview last month with Grist magazine. “They can take a train ride to see Grandma rather than doing it in a car.”

You know what else we haven’t figured out how to pay for? Highways. According to Subsidyscope, gas taxes and other fees have never covered the costs of the highway system. In 2007, fees collected from highway users barely covered half the costs of building and maintaining highways. That year, about $70 billion in highway funding came from other sources. (Even in New York, which, more than any other state, uses fees on driving to support public transit, drivers cover only 65 cents of each dollar spent on highways [PDF].) Meanwhile, the bicycle and pedestrian projects that Barnes moans about received all of $1.2 billion in federal funding in 2009, a record-setting year.

You could say that these massive subsidies for the highway system affect our behavior and induce driving. But Fred Barnes has different ideas about what affects our transportation decisions:

Last year, George Will zinged LaHood as the “Secretary of Behavior Modification” for his fervent opposition to cars. LaHood all but pleaded guilty. Steering funds from highways to bike and walking paths and streetcars, he said, “is a way to coerce people out of their cars.” His word, coerce.

But it’s hardly an answer to traffic congestion. Most people, most of the time, aren’t going to ride a bike to work or walk. They’re going to drive, even in the face of disincentives erected by LaHood.

LaHood will wear “coerce people out of their cars” around his neck forever. Which is ironic, because if anything, the Obama DOT has assiduously avoided erecting any “disincentives” to driving. The gas tax rate has been untouchable under LaHood. A mileage tax has been a non-starter. The last time U.S. DOT encouraged cities to pursue policies like congestion pricing or performance parking, which do affect driving behavior, George W. Bush was president.

Barnes wraps up with the following policy proposal:

The Obama administration, with its priority on ejecting people from their cars and its embrace of an environmental ethic that regards highways as evil, is unlikely to champion a higher gas tax. Any other tax increase you can imagine, yes. This one, no. That means Republicans will have to step up. They can insist the revenues be used solely for highways and bridges. Local governments would then be free to spend on bikeways.

A lobbyist for highway builders could hardly have said it better. The gas tax is theirs — it belongs to highways. This is the mentality that advocates for transportation reform will face off against in the months ahead, when the administration moves forward with its infrastructure push. Every dollar for transit, bicycling and safer streets will be contested. Be prepared.