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Streetsblog Should be Careful Throwing Stones from its Glass House

Baruch Feigenbaum
July 17, 2012, 12:00pm

Some environmental groups unhappy with the new 27-month transportation bill are distorting the facts to make a quick point. Several weeks ago, Streetsblog suggested that free-market think tanks were hypocritical. From the website:

Here we have the Reason Foundation howling about $1 million for Capital Bikeshare. And last week self-styled GOP budget hawks successfully wrestled away federal funds from bike and pedestrian projects on the grounds that such programs are “wasteful.”

But wait! Bloomberg reported that in the same week House Tea Party Republicans voted to maintain a $214 million program that subsidizes air travel to towns like Huron, South Dakota and Scottsbluff, Nebraska — something that folks at the Cato Institute and fellow Republicans have argued is an unconscionable use of taxpayer money.

Capital Bikeshare received $16 million in government subsidies including $1 million which was earmarked to minority and “low-income persons” to use bikeshare. Capital Bikeshare’s own study finds that 95% of regular patrons have college degrees, 80% are White, more than 90% are employed and only 7% make less than $25,000 a year. Clearly most riders are neither low-income nor minorities. My colleagues, Jim Epstein’s and Kennedy’s, excellent story and video are available here. We absolutely do not support the diversion of funds intended for low-income individuals’ transportation needs being used for wealthier people’s recreation needs.

But we strongly support Citi Bike. Citi Bike is New York’s new bikeshare system sponsored by Citi and MasterCard. Citi Bike will consist of 10,000 bikes in 600 stations in Manhattan, Brooklyn and Queens. And Citi Bike will not use one dime of public funding. We strongly support biking organized by the private sector. And while we dislike government subsidies, we most definitely think that a program targeted for low-income residents should support those residents, and not upper middle-class white people. I fail to see how that makes us hypocritical but perhaps I am missing something.

Streetsblog has more: 

I, for one, will be holding my breath until the folks at Reason write a scathing denouncement of this program. Or could it be that they don’t really hate subsidies as much as the idea of providing services used primarily by city-dwellers. Stay tuned.

Apparently Streetsblog is not as familiar with our work as they think. Only ten months ago my colleague, Shirley Ybarra, worked with M.J. Bradley & Associates, the American Bus Association, National Resources Defense Council and Taxpayers for Common Sense to Compare the Essential Air Service Program to Coach Bus Service. The materials include a Full Study, Detailed Tables with every subsidized flight within 150 miles of a large or medium airport, and a brief Summary.

The study’s conclusion was that this essential service should be eliminated. Why? Essential Air Service (EAS) is economically inefficient. Federal subsidies comprise almost half of the total ticket costs. Additionally, replacing EAS with buses would reduce average Carbon Dioxide emissions per pound per passenger by 200, Nitrous Oxide by 50, Hydrocarbons by 375, Carbon Monoxide by 60 and Sulfur Dioxide by 80. I am not an environmental scientist, but this sounds like an environmental benefit to me.

I agree with Streetsblog’s criticism of Republicans who voted to expand EAS. Republican Tea Party members who voted to expand the program should be ashamed. After blasting other Republicans for subsidizing federal waste, they are voting to expand one of the most wasteful government programs. EAS subsidies should end immediately. However, those in glass houses should not throw stones. And some environmental activists, unhappy with the new transportation bill, are launching misleading boulders. Parts of the program expansion are in the 2013 House Appropriations bill that must be reconciled with the Senate version. Since the Senate Appropriations bill is different, there is no guarantee this increased funding will remain. Second, far more Democrats supported EAS than Republicans. While 77 out of the 231 House Republicans voted to keep EAS spending, 161 out of 171 House Democrats voted to keep EAS. Why are the environmentally minded Democrats not voting to kill the subsidy? 

While I do not always agree with Streetsblog, they are entitled to their point of view. Their stories on the lack of checks and balances in the Transpo Loan Program and the problem with Federal Safety Mandates are well-written thoughtful pieces. But when a federal transportation program for the poor in actuality supports recreation for wealthy people, we have a problem. When Streetsblog complains that free-market groups do not support EAS after those same groups wrote an entire report on the program less than a year ago, we have poor research. And when Streetsblog lumps all the groups it dislikes together, regardless of the real differences, we have an oversimplification of the facts. Transportation is an area where all viewpoints are welcome. When discussing the viewpoints of another group, it is helpful to actually know what that group represents.


Baruch Feigenbaum is Transportation Policy Analyst


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