Monday, June 21, 2004

Public transportation, et al 

Last Sunday, Haynes Goddard, an economics professor at the University of Cincinnati, wrote an op-ed in the Cincinnati Enquirer. His basic argument is that the Ohio Kentucky Indiana Regional Council of Governments (OKI for short) were doing the region a disservice by not including public transport in their plans for transportation development. He said that by focusing primarily on highway construction, OKI was contributing to problems of air pollution, traffic congestion and higher gas prices, which would blunt economic development. In his last paragraph, Mr. Goddard accuses the leaders of OKI of ducking tough decisions and calls for a massive reorganization of the way OKI does business.

Yesterday, the President and Executive Director responded to Mr. Goddard. Their basic arguments have been: OKI is trying to listen to the citizens of the region to find some solutions to traffic problems. Where they could, they included expansion of public transport into their plans. And finally, because voters turned down a half cent sales tax increase, we can't start to build a light rail system because of Department of Transportation mandates. I will expand upon these two gentleman's response to Mr. Goddard, but if the reader wishes to view the rebuttals to Mr. Goddard, click here and here.


First of all, Mr. Goddard's assertion that higher gas prices are "here to stay" is one that an economist shouldn't be making. When adjusted for inflation, gasoline prices are higher than their long term trend, but still not as high as the run up in the 70's according to
Stephen Moore of the Cato Institute. There are many factors to higher gas prices, but I think a lack of public transportation is one of the more miniscule ones. It seems obvious to me that Mr. Goddard was throwing this assertion around for emotional and rhetorical effect.

Next, Mr. Goddard rants that urban sprawl and increased traffic congestion are the result of focusing "solely" on road construction. "Urban sprawl", as far as it's a problem, is the result of people demanding more housing for less money than they would find in the cities. People also want quality schools, peace and quiet and a plot of land of their own. What I find infuriating about this column is that this intelligent man is living in a fantasy world but thinks that we ought to be in it with him. For instance, he doesn't acknowledge the severe beat down OKI took at the ballot box in trying to get a half cent sales tax increase passed. The pro lite rail people had regional government officials behind them, they had Fortune 500 Corporations supporting the measure. They had the Cincinnati Post supporting the measure (The Cincinnati Enquirer opposed it). They even had a life sized model flown in from Minneapolis for a week in an effort to "educate" the public about lite rail (see that story here and here.) Even with all of this backing, the measure still went down in flames by a 60-40 margin. What does he expect of political leaders in the face of that kind of message from voters?

Road construction AND "public transportation" should be privatized affairs. I think OKI and other "regional" government agencies shouldn't exist. I think that having toll roads to discourage unnecessary trips in cars would all be far better use of resources than simply throwing more good money after bad in money-losing ventures. In Cincinnati in particular, public transport needs to ditch, in the worst way, the "hub-and-spoke" system of running their buses. I think that airlines and bus lines lose money because they are addicted to the hub-and-spoke way of organizing themselves. Problems with gas prices have little to do with public transportation and "urban sprawl" isn't a problem because it is merely the housing market responding to demands from citizens. Cities need change with and embrace urban sprawl, not fight it. Mr. Goddard's column illustrates the lack of imagination and narrow tunnel vision that plagues government bureaucracies and far often academics alike.

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