Is highway spending “conservative”?

And is public transit spending “liberal”?

I’ve been working my way through “Suburban Nation,” and although I consider myself politically conservative, I find this pro-city, anti-sprawl book conversational and convincing. But I might be in the minority among my conservative brethren.

Critical reviews of “Suburban Nation” at Amazon.com call the authors “socialists,” “elitist” and “neo-liberal.” Ouch. But my question is: Why is it “conservative” for city dwellers to help subsidize highways for suburban dwellers, but “liberal” for suburban dwellers to help subsidize transit within the city?

Under the heading “The Automobile Subsidy,” the authors of “Suburban Nation” say:

“government subsidies for highways and parking alone amount to between 8 and 10 percent of our gross national product, the equivalent of a fuel tax of approximately $3.50 per gallon. … The cost of these subsidies — approximately $5,000 per car per year — is passed directly on to the American citizen in the form of increased prices for products or, more often, as income, property, and sales taxes. …

“Because they do not pay the full price of driving, most car owners choose to drive as much as possible.”

The authors compare our current situation to Stalin’s Gosplan,

“a Soviet agency that set arbitrary ‘correct’ prices for many consumer goods, irrespective (sic) of their cost of production, with unsurprising results.”

Can anyone point me to anything that would prove or disprove the authors’ contention that our highways are heavily subsidized way beyond what the government gathers in fuel taxes? Because if the authors are right, then who is conservative, and who is liberal?

— Photo of Markham Bridge in Portland, Ore., by Auraelius on Flickr

Car trouble

If you want to feel how desperately dependent on the automobile you are, simply arrange for your only vehicle to break down.

This happened to me and my family recently, and suddenly, getting a daughter to a distant doctor, getting a dog to the vet, and getting groceries became either difficult or impossible.

At least for us, this was not a new feeling. Back when we were living in western New York State on a newspaperman’s salary, we could not afford both food for a growing family and a car. So we had to rely on walking and an inadequate transit “system,” which in its entirety consisted of one small bus making one circuit around town once an hour.

James Howard Kunstler, in his admittedly caustic book “The Geography of Nowhere,” identifies three groups of people would are discriminated against in an automobile dominated society:

  • The poor, because they can often not afford a car.
  • The young, because a parent has to drive them everywhere.
  • The old, because once they lose the physical ability to drive, they are helpless.

I know it is thought to be a conservative value to oppose subsidies for public transit, forcing things like train lines and city bus companies to fend for themselves. But cities and states remain committed to spending billions building new highways and interchanges to support an urban culture in which an automobile is a necessity for everything in every day life.

We put all of our eggs in one basket, and now there is no wonder why there are no trains leaving from the Baker Street station. We’ve starved every other mode of transportation to feed our appetite for the automobile. I’m glad I will be buying another minivan, but our community is poorer for not having more options for moving people around.