The “Roads are National, Transit is Local” Argument

Houston's West Loop Freeway. How many of these lanes were in the national interest?

Houston’s West Loop Freeway. How many of these lanes were in the national interest?

We all need to practice reading and refuting arguments of the form: “Central government should focus on big national issues, like highways, instead of local needs, like transit.”  It’s become one of the most common ways for people to dress up their preference for roads over transit as an expression of a consistent policy.

Here’s how it sounds:

For the most part, transit systems are local matters. Using federal taxes to collect money from the whole country and then send it back to each local transit system is a terribly inefficient way to raise money for transit and is also inherently unfair as different locales receive back either more or less than they paid in. The only reason to rely on federal funding for part of the cost of local transit systems is that it helps local politicians by keeping their local taxes and transit fares lower.

This common practice of using federal funds for local projects in order to hide the true cost should be stopped. The federal government should pay for the things that are truly national in scope (like the interstate highway system). This type of federal spending for local needs encourages too much government spending by making higher costs easier to sell to voters. The federal government should stop being used as an enabler to higher local government spending.

That’s University of Georgia economics professor Jeffrey Dorfman, in Forbes yesterday.

Dorfman seems to invoke the principle of devolution — the idea that government actions should be planned and funded at the lowest level of government that can deal with the issue within its boundaries.  It’s often stereotyped as a conservative idea in the US, but it shouldn’t be. In the UK, for example, it’s mostly the leftist cities who are rebelling against over-centralization of planning power in Westminster.    The same idea is gaining force in US urban policy, as cities chafe under rule by central governments that care only about suburbs and rural areas.  Everyone prefers to deal with more local governments that are easier for a voter to influence, so this is a space of potential left-right agreement that deserves more discussion.

But the notion that highways are national while transit is local? This makes sense if you’re a motorist, but here’s what happens when you press on it:

If the test for Federal funding is that a facility is used for interstate travel, fine, but this suggests a coherent interstate network of roads and rails scaled for the interstate demand only.  Then, all additional capacity and upgrades needed for travel within a state would be state and local costs.  What would this mean?

  • The Federal government would invest to create a robust interstate road network sized to interstate needs only.  In urban areas, the Federal government would fund only as many lanes as are justified by cars and trucks originating outside the state.  That means two lanes at most, and it means that many Federally funded highways would have no Federal role at all.
  • The Federal role in airports and maritime transportation would be viewed the same way.
  • The Federal government would also fund interstate rail (passenger and freight) to the degree that this is a better investment than roads for serving interstate needs.  Interstate high speed rail improvements would be squarely Federal.
  • Finally, many US metro areas span state lines, so a large part of the costs of urban transit in those cities would be Federal, as it would count as interstate transportation.

Nobody would propose this policy, but only for the boring reason that it’s biased toward multi-state metro areas: The Northeast wins big while California and Texas lose.  But if you could control for that, this would be a coherent principle of devolution such as Dorfman seems to be advocating.

But our car-first friends never make that argument.  Instead, they just handwave about how of course highways are naturally national while those other things are local.  In fact, the distinction between interstate and intrastate doesn’t line up at all with distinctions among road, rail, maritime and aviation modes — either passenger or freight.

This is why you should see through these familiar arguments, and recognize them instead as sheer claims to hegemony: “We road people are superior, so of course money should be spent on us — including giving road-based services a leg up in competition with other modes.”

The former Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott liked to make the same argument:

“We have no history of funding urban rail and I think it’s important that we stick to our knitting,” the Federal Opposition Leader declared. “And the Commonwealth’s knitting when it comes to funding infrastructure is roads.”

In his autobiography, Abbott wrote about how driving a car is a quintessential Australian experience, a key to the national character.  He is also known for an extreme social and cultural conservatism that is toxic in inner cities.  So even among those who agreed with him, Abbott’s comments were widely recognized as an expression of a cultural agenda, not an economic one. While nodding at devolution, he was really saying that road people like him are superior to those urban transit people, none of whom will ever vote for him anyway.(1)

When you see arguments like Dorfman’s, that, I’d suggest, is what you should hear.  Devolution itself is a powerful idea, but we’ll never have a clear conversation about it if it’s only used to make claims of superiority.


(1) Abbott was deposed in 2015 by Malcolm Turnbull, an urban conservative from a wealthy part of Sydney.  Turnbull dumped Abbott’s roads-first view, stressing instead that Federal transport investments would be multimodal.  Despite its powerful rural interests and cultural identity, Australia has a strong bipartisan consensus that its national economy depends on the functioning of its cities.

18 Responses to The “Roads are National, Transit is Local” Argument

  1. Laurence Aurbach April 4, 2017 at 11:21 am #

    Dorman’s definition is specious. It is possible to walk and bike from state to state (as hikers and some bike tourists do), but the freeway promoters aren’t stepping up to fund trails and paths. It is possible to drive a commuter train from state to state (as trains in some multistate metro areas do), but they’re not stepping up to fund commuter railways.

    The simple fact is the overwhelming percentage of VMT on metro-area freeways is local trips within the metro area. Urban freeways are an inherently local affair. The federal government might try to expand metro-area freeways to make all that local traffic free flowing, but that would be the most inefficient and wasteful strategy for speeding up interstate traffic. And the congestion will creep back in after 5-10 years or less, so it’s short sighted too..

  2. Ben G April 4, 2017 at 1:26 pm #

    I can’t tell if Dorfman is a shill, tool, or just plain idiot. Anyone can look at federal spending on “interstate” highways and see that most of it goes to roadways in and around major cities, NOT to the highway connections that take an automobile across the country (he’ll, even most trucking is local after being offloaded from freight rail).

    For most of the interstate system is just two lanes in each direction, yet the big bucks go to places like Atlanta with 5 lanes in each direction going around it (I-285) and 5, 6 or 7 lanes each way on THREE different interstates (20, 75, 85) that cross through the center of the city. Yet once you get out of the metro area these all go back to 2 or 3 lanes in each direction. So it’s obviously not “interstate” AT ALL.

    I can’t believe this idiot Dorfman is teaching at my alma mater. Shame on UGA.

  3. Roland S April 4, 2017 at 8:40 pm #

    The Interstate system is complete. Any Federal funds from here on should be used for maintenance and reconstruction of the existing system, with no expansion of capacity except where justified by an increase in intercity traffic (some interstates are busy enough, even in rural areas, to justify an expansion from four to six lanes).

    Certainly the large interchanges, highway widening projects, offramps, express lanes, and other METROPOLITAN-scale highway projects are not a Federal concern.

    I’m fine with a conservative policy that creates a level playing field. Halve the Federal gas tax, reduce FHWA to a maintenance agency, and let urban areas decide how to spend their own tax dollars – if they even want to tax themselves for transportation at all. Unfortunately much of conservative policy has to do with cultural preferences and little to do with actual conservative principles of government.

    • William C. April 10, 2017 at 1:51 pm #

      I am a conservative, and I wholeheartedly endorse this policy. It’s a huge shame that our ostensibly conservative party has abandoned its principles here.

  4. Monika April 4, 2017 at 9:49 pm #

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  5. Bjorn April 4, 2017 at 9:59 pm #

    Copying my comments from Streetsblog’s article, as they are just as relevant here:

    This is one of those issues where urbanites can win focusing on arguments that emphasize more meritocratic, ‘succeed/fail-on-its-own’ beliefs that are a core value of many on the right, instead of focusing on fairness ‘something-for-everyone’ beliefs valued amongst many on the left.

    For instance, we know that federal transportation spending tends to disproportionately benefit rural areas that lean to the right, and would become more so under the Trump administration’s plan. If urban transportation spending is argued for out of ‘fairness’, right-leaning people will ignore the argument as it neither appeals to their core beliefs or benefits them.

    If urban transportation spending were argued instead on meritocratic grounds, while the ends will generally not benefit those on the right, the justification does resonate with their core beliefs. Given the choice between batting .0 or .5, I’ll choose the latter.

    Given the above, If I were an urban politician I’d advocate for something along these lines:

    “Mr. President, we believe that plenty of redistribution in federal transportation spending still remains, and we would support block granting all transportation spending to the state where the revenue is raised. Enabling states to spend only the amount of transportation revenue they can raise without federal bureaucrats picking and choosing winners and losers forces states to compete on their own merits, instead of mooching off states many miles away. When states can choose their own transportation spending destiny, we can Make America Great Again.”

  6. Mike Robinson April 5, 2017 at 3:51 am #

    It is similar in the UK. Depending on the area, a substantial proportion of traffic on the national motorway system can be local traffic that is only travelling a short distance between one or two junctions. The motorways have induced demand for more local traffic.

    On the point about devolution, I don’t think there is anything inherently right wing or left wing about deciding the appropriate level for decisions. In London, for example, control of the vast majority of roads is devolved down to boroughs rather than Transport for London, the central transport authority for the city.

    Some boroughs are under control of left wing parties, some under right wing and that tends to influence their decisions. In general, right wing boroughs somewhat favouring private car ownership and use over cycling and public transport.

  7. S.L. April 5, 2017 at 5:44 am #

    Eisenhower pushed for the Interstate system for national defense purposes, to move military supplies and equipment efficiently around the country.That was the argument and justification for the Federal Government to create the system.

    As far as the future of transportation in the United States, I think that we should abolish gas taxes and toll the entire system. Also, the Federal Government should upgrade the railroad lines to multi-track electrified rail and pay for the maintenance of the rail line, but charge anyone who want’s to use them tolls to operator private trains on the system.

    Regardless, we have to decide if we want one large government to control everything, or fifty small governments and change the US into an EU type system. At this point I am so cynical to politics, I couldn’t care if it is one way or the other. It is just that every time we change directions, our country and quality of life suffers.

  8. david vartanoff April 5, 2017 at 10:08 am #

    Ike’s Interstate plan was only supposed to cover metro to metro routes. Richard Daley I was the one who got Johnson to divert Interstate money to fund the freeways within Chicago. (See Joel Garreau’s Edge Cities for the details) And of course this economist ignores the interstate character of subways such as PATH, and DC Metro which certainly fall within “interstate commerce”.

    • S.L. April 9, 2017 at 6:11 pm #

      I agree with you completely David. I was just stating the original argument.

      It’s politics, and like anything political, it gets politicized.

  9. Alex Botta April 6, 2017 at 10:32 am #

    It’s similar in Canada. Politics rules the day. About 85% of the population lives in cities and towns. By denying federal funding for in cities, one could ask, why is the federal government denying its own constituents vital infrastructure? The same applies to the provincial (or state) governance and funding models.

    Currently, there is a fairly new federal government that is banking on urban infrastructure funding. Concurrently, our provincial government in B.C. came late to the transit table with adequate funding after shoveling scads of money into overdesigned mega freeways. Of course there is an election campaign on now, so it’s time to pony up and try to make everyone happy. I’m glad it’s on the superior efficacy of transit this time.

  10. Begonia April 6, 2017 at 12:01 pm #

    Let’s not forget that much of what is collected for the federal gas tax is returned back to the states to fund state highways and local roads. In many cities and rural towns, those state highways are mainly used by “locals”, too.

    By Dorfman’s argument, we should be eliminating those aids for local roads as well because they are a “local project”

  11. Wanderer April 6, 2017 at 7:57 pm #

    The transit is local argument also breaks down because cities are major economic engines for the whole country, and the cities need transit to function.

  12. Dexter Wong April 7, 2017 at 1:17 am #

    Dorfman’s claim that subways are strictly local is specious. New Jersey’s PATH starts in New Jersey and crosses the state line into New York and one line continues into Midtown Manhattan.

  13. Randy Dean April 13, 2017 at 7:09 am #

    Look at Atlanta. We are getting $10 million for startup costs to clear up and replace the burnt/collapsed parts of the I-85 viaduct, and up to 90% of the total cost to replace it. This is a section that is only supposed to be used by local traffic. Interstate traffic should be on 285.

    BTW, Jarrett, I’d love to hear your thoughts on bus v. rail in this situation. It is easy for MARTA to ramp up rail, so they are drastically increasing service and crowing about their improvements (using language that implies the entire system is experiencing those improvements), while essentially doing nothing on the bus side.

    • Jarrett Walker April 14, 2017 at 8:07 am #

      Randy. Your question answers itself. 😉

  14. Max Wyss April 14, 2017 at 12:58 pm #

    Obviously Dorfman actively ignores “urban” in the question about urban freeways. And he actively errs about transit being “local”. He does simply not answer the question.

    Urban freeways are IMHO, like transit, REGIONAL issues. The problem is that there is no political body for regions (in the US, and in many other places too). It is not a state, as some states have several regions, and there are regions covering more than one state. A regional body would have the competence and the competences to control all kind of traffic, independent of its mode.

    But such a regional body would also need the capability to finance their system. And that is all a question of reason and political will (if that has a chance to not be a contradiction…).

  15. Erin The Locksmith August 8, 2017 at 3:48 am #

    Good observation.