Eye on the Pie and Opinion and Mass Transit

MARCUS: Most Hoosiers don't want mass transit

February 20, 2010

With some regularity, citizens in major Hoosier communities issue transportation reports that call for continued improvement of existing roads and streets with additional resources devoted to mass transit. Newspapers endorse the plan and it is shelved.

These plans are offered to reduce congestion, commuting time, energy usage and environmental damage. They may include financing suggestions encompassing tolls, fees and taxes. But they are doomed to be ignored because no local government, and certainly not the Indiana General Assembly, is interested in transportation. The exceptions might be airports and inter-city “high-speed” trains, as long as the federal government foots an overwhelming portion of the bill.

Transportation has been a key to long-term economic health. As transportation costs decline, the quality of life advances. Behind the decline in transportation costs lies industrial progress. Humanity learns how to do something and applies that knowledge to reducing the costs of transporting people, goods and information.

We have seen this with travel on water and land as well as in and through the air.

Railroads, steamships, automobiles and trucks, airplanes and our cell phones are obvious examples. Historically, governments eager to ride the latest-model bandwagon will subsidize the newest technology.

In the United States, we gave land to the railroads; built ports for ships, highways for autos and trucks, and airports for planes; and gave away or charged little for transmission frequencies. Today, we are subsidizing “high-speed” rail and electric motors for trucks and autos. (“High-speed” rail in the United States is defined as 120 mph. In other countries, where the distances between major cities is shorter, trains already run at 220 mph.)

There is, however, no comprehensive plan or coordinating agency to administer and implement such a plan. Certainly, there is neither substantive nor sustaining financing for any plan. Why not?

We have what we have and we cannot imagine better. Our private vehicles, with camouflaged subsidies, are warm and secure. They operate on our schedules, play our preferred music, and allow us to converse with friends while applying makeup or eating breakfast. What could be better? Well, a covered parking space right next to our destination would be nice. Also, it would be good if there were fewer cars competing with us for limited highway or street space.    

People who focus on the big picture want mass transit. The trolley, the subway, the railroad—these should be resurrected. They will help bring rationality and efficiency to transportation and land use, advancing civility and civilization.

Those who are “people people” focus on freedom, lifestyle and the delights of an atomistic society where collective action is suspect. They see the private auto as the greatest mass-transit system yet invented. It can be improved, but not by replacing it with another system.

 The problem becomes acute because we have much invested in existing systems, both in terms of resources and emotion. As Americans, we Hoosiers do not have a mental model of a comprehensive transit system. How would it work? How can we get from Madison to Merrillville better than we can today?

Should we have transit that reinforces downtown in our town? Isn’t that just a subsidy for downtown landowners who want to recoup their losses of the last century? Won’t that somehow destroy the congeniality of folks in Princeton and Portland? Can Terre Haute survive if Chicago and St. Louis are each about an hour away? Where is the concern for the people of Hancock County in the Indianapolis plan?

It is easier for us to raise these practical questions than to endorse dreams that will not be realized in less than a quarter-century. What would happen if the sound and solid citizens behind the transit plans sold the sizzle and aroma of a steak rather than the recipe for a nice salad? That is, what if they approached transit as a politician approaches an election?•

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Marcus taught economics for more than 30 years at Indiana University and is the former director of IU’s Business Research Center. His column appears weekly. He can be reached at mmarcus@ibj.com.

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