Freedom isn’t free, and neither is transportation

“Freedom’s not free. You have to pay for it.  So if that’s what you want to do, that lifestyle, you want that, it’ll cost money to do that. That’s plain and simple.”

That’s a quote from Carver County Commissioner Maluchnik from a recent MPR story on the deficit between Minnesota’s transportation wants and the state’s funding ability.  The lifestyle I assume he is referring to is living in far-flung areas of the metro and commuting long distances.  The state’s transportation plan is under review, and many projects are being pushed way back, or into non-existence because of the lack of funding.  The Commissioner is reflecting the fact that people may be starting to realize that living with the country’s 5th largest road network may require additional resources.

Of course, it’s not exactly clear from the article that they are, since meeting all the needs would require a $2 increase in the gas tax (according to a representative of the Metropolitan Council), which they don’t seem to be proposing.  So while people may currently be starting to understand the costs of this road network by seeing (and feeling) it’s state of disrepair, it’s not evident that anyone wants to pay more for it.  And while some of these new projects may in fact have questionable benefits (or may not be deemed important enough to raise additional revenue for), its my opinion that maintenance definitely is worth it.

That brings us to another good conversation, this one at the Strong Towns blog.  Strong Towns is currently running a great series of point-counterpoint posts with (in)famous anti-planner Randal O’Toole.  Yesterday on the blog, O’Toole gave us bike-loving radicals a history lesson, positing that low-density suburbs would still exist without government “subsidies”.  While I generally agree with most of his points (even though he neglects to mention the massive subsidies that are the mortgage interest deduction and federal loan guarantees: land use is the other half of transportation), his post is at best a good history lesson, and not necessarily any indication of where we are headed. Strong Towns has a good rebuttal to O’Toole (although user fees only pay around 50% of the costs of highways now, not 70%), looking to the future and reminding us that a full-cost accounting would definitely make built form different.

So I’d say the evidence (in Minnesota at least), supports the Strong Towns point of view: the construction of the transportation system is at a cross-roads.  More of the costs of the system are evident (not hidden), and less of them are being paid for by users.  The benefits of sole reliance on auto transportation and low-density land use begin to look questionable.  As Strong Towns points out, “desire” does not equal reality.  While O’Toole pegs planners as favoring nineteenth-century development patterns, I’d say most of us are more open-minded, and perfectly willing to let the market work, as long as decisions are made with a full knowledge of all the costs.

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