Paul Weyrich’s Transportation Bizarro World

Heritage Foundation co-founder and current Free Congress Foundation chairman Paul Weyrich is viewed as a founding father of the free market movement, and looking back on the totality of his career, he’s certainly earned it. However, on transportation policy I regret to say that I find Weyrich in the wrong most of the time. For example, Weyrich has been a long-time, die-hard rail mass transit advocate, supporter and apologist, much to the chagrin of many on the right that actively oppose rail boondoggles. Weyrich also has a certain disdain for bus transit, generally preferred by free marketers over rail because it is inherently more flexible and less costly to build and operate. Weyrich also regularly gets it wrong on public-private partnerships and competition. All of this is unfortunate, especially because he recently served on the National Surface Transportation Policy and Revenue Study Commission and, as such, is called on frequently to weigh in on what we need to do to fix our broken transportation funding system. If we’re actually going to achieve that goal, however, then we’ll need to largely reject Weyrich’s advice in yesterday’s Evening Bulletin:

So what is a state to do to make up for the federal revenue shortfall? I served on the National Surface Transportation Policy and Revenue Study Commission. We anticipated the Trust Fund shortfall, although it is coming much earlier than anticipated. Because of the decline in automobile travel in the wake of $4 gasoline. We made several recommendations that Pennsylvania offices would be well to examine. First, every state also taxes fuel. It most likely would be easier to raise the taxes at the state level and if the legislature agrees to do so, it is almost certain that Gov. Rendell would sign the measure.

Yes, that’s free marketer Paul Weyrich saying the first solution is to RAISE TAXES. And an unsustainable tax at that. So Weyrich is really whistling past the graveyard here and supporting more of the failed status quo. Not to mention that there is practically zero political will to raise state gas taxes anyway in an era of $4/gal gas, regardless of what state you’re talking about. So this suggestion is just disingenuous from the start.

Second, we recommended that a ticket charge be initiated for every trip taken. That would be hard to implement at the city level, but, for example, tickets on the Keystone service between Harrisburg and New York are a perfect candidate. Even SEPTA’s interstate lines to Trenton, N.J. and Wilmington, Del. might have the “pay as you go” ticket tax applied to those routes. And at least one community is taxing hotel rooms to pay for its proposed light rail system.

Will transit supporters like Rep. DeFazio, et al., ever really go for higher transit fees? With all of their rants against the innocuous and sensible inflation-indexed toll increases we’ve seen in recent toll road concession deals, wouldn’t supporting transit ticket charges expose the these folks to claims of hypocrisy from their friends on the left?

Our most controversial recommendation was to implore Congress to remove the barriers to pricing and trading. There are roads which do not currently have tolls which can support tolls. In fact, the Pennsylvania congressional delegation should join with other state delegations to get Congress to permit tolling on some Interstate highways. In addition, some experiments are now taking place, which have initiated congestion pricing. That ought to be examined carefully. If it costs more to drive on a certain road in peak hours then motorists will have to choose between making time at the busiest periods and waiting to travel in off peak times. Those which elect to travel at peak times can be charged for the privilege of doing so.

A brief glimmer of hope for sound thinking. Weyrich is spot on here. If only he would have stopped here…

The Commission also recommended more extensive use of Public-Private Investments.(PPI) Many states and localities have leased sections of their highways and bridges to private investors. The investors get to keep the revenues they get from tolls or congestion pricing. In Europe, public-private partnerships have even been tried with rail facilities. There is no reason that can’t be tried here as well. The commission said it could not support public-private partnerships if the investors were from Abroad. We believe only domestic PPIs should be permitted.

And the glimmer of hope dissolves. He’s right that we need to encourage the more extensive use of PPPs, but blows it completely when he says we shouldn’t invite “them fur’ners” as participants. If Europe is a model and we should be trying similar approaches, as Weyrich implies, then why shouldn’t we invite the companies that work over there to invest in infrastructure over here, since they have the experience, expertise, etc.? The idea that only U.S. companies should participate in PPP projects is populist balderdash, and Weyrich should know better than to advocate something so protectionist and nonsensical. Read my February Philadelphia Inquirer op-ed for more on why we should be embracing foreign investment in domestic infrastructure, not shunning it as Weyrich suggests.

I frequently get asked which one of these solutions should be adopted by states and localities. I tell the questioner “all of the above” If America is going to invest in the level of mass transit investment which is needed to give taxpayers a real choice to drive or take transit, then revenues are going to have to increase significantly at the state and local level. Some have claimed the commission is too pro-rail. That charge is false. We are for giving citizens a choice. If they elect to drive, then they ought to pay more of the actual cost of that decision. If they choose transit, then we have to face this fact. Half of America has no real transit facilities available. And those which do offer an alternative are often unattractive, do not keep a reliable schedule, and in some cases do not go where people want to go. While the depletion of the Federal Highway (and Transit) Trust Fund is causing major heartburn all across America, in the long run it may be a blessing. States and localities will have to now face up to their obligations and responsibilities to make transit the mode of choice for the average American.

Which is it? How does Weyrich reconcile the supposed objectivity (i.e., it’s “false” to say the “commission is too pro-rail”), with his assertion that it’s our obligation and responsibility “to make transit the mode of choice for the average American.” I guess that since the vast majority of Americans do not choose to use transit themselves, then government should make that choice for them. I find this attitude condescending and unrealistic. Most Americans prefer the flexibility, speed and customized travel afforded by automobility over public transit. So Weyrich is essentially making a disguised pitch for more social engineering here, along the same lines as the central planners, utopians, and socialists he’d probably take to the mat if they were talking about health care or social security. And what if a state or local government couldn’t afford the boondoggle rail project that Weyrich so fancies, and no domestic investor-operator team was interested in bidding on a PPP for it? Would he be open to taking that financing from abroad now?! Or is all foreign investment in infrastructure tainted in his mind? With all due respect, I’d encourage readers to Google other pieces by Weyrich so that they can judge for themselves the wisdom of his perspective. IMO, we deserve better ideas from pioneers in government reform…such as this clear thinking by another founding father of the free market movement, Reason’s own Bob Poole. Unfortunately, I think the Policy and Revenue Commission picked the wrong founding father. Reason’s Transportation Research and Commentary