Richard Florida
by Richard Florida
Thu Jan 22nd 2009 at 4:45pm UTC

Tax Cuts –> Transit

That’s what the proposed $800 plus billion U.S. stimulus has come to. TPM’s Elena Schor has the details direct from Representative Jim Oberstar’s (D-MN) speech fo the U.S. Conference of Mayors.

That is why we set forth this $85-billion initiative from our committee. It’s been reduced in the final going. We expect that it’ll come out somewhere around $63 billion, but $30 billion for highways.  The reason for the reduction in overall funding — we took money out of Amtrak and out of aviation; we took money out of the Corps of Engineers, reduced the water infrastructure program, the drinking water and the wastewater treatment facilities and sewer lines, reduced that from $14 billion to roughly $9 billion — was the tax cut initiative that had to be paid for in some way by keeping the entire package in the range of $850 billion.

Ryan Avent has more to say here; Matt Yglesias here.

So it’s yes to highways and tax cuts, no to transit. I’m speechless.

25 Responses to “Tax Cuts –> Transit”

  1. Ian Says:

    Speculation it was the Obama team that made the cuts:

  2. Swordsman Says:

    Brilliant, thanks Washington…

  3. tpk-nyc Says:

    The US Senate is not a very democratic institution. Rural interests are massively over-represented. New York’s huge mass-transit riding population has the same number of votes as Wyoming. It’s sad, but not surprising, that all the funding went to highways.

  4. Buzzcut Says:

    All right, I’m going to take you to the woodshed on this one.

    I think that you’ve got some crossed wires in your “Creative Class” theory.

    On the one hand, you explain the diversity and income inequality of CC areas as the need of the creative class to spend more time being creative, and less time doing menial work like mowing lawns and cleaning houses.

    Well, how do you make that work with the enormous waste of time that is public transit.

    Amtrak? Are you kidding me? Outside of the NYC to Washington route, it is a complete waste of time for anyone to take a train.

    I would say that, if CC people really are at the upper end of the income distribution, there is no way that you can make public transportation work, from a personal finance point of view.

    If our concern is energy efficiency and the environment, the Prius beats just about any form of public transit out there.

    The Prius really is a game changer.

    I like Patrick Bedard’s columns because he is a former automotive engineer. He’s got a knack for math and technical issues than most bloviators who come from a journalistic background don’t.

  5. anne Says:

    I just wrote my Congressman, Senators, and the President. If you’re concerned, do the same!

  6. Brian Says:

    Buzzcut –

    You are confused. The issue is this: does the “stimulus” bill cut public transit funding so as to leave room for highway dollars and tax cuts. Public transit obviously encompasses more than Amtrak. Moving about (within) a dense city on clean, efficient rail (subway, lightrail, etc) as opposed to auto is NOT a waste of time. Moving between cities in clean, efficient rail is NOT a waste of time. Indeed, if such systems existed (which they predominantly don’t) I predict many would use them, in part because you can think, read, write, sketch, listen, etc while riding, none of which are easily done while stuck behind the wheel of a car in 5 miles of traffic on some interstate. Like James Kunstler, I would suggest that we find some way to put aside our psychology of previous investment and recognize that we need to devote scarce resources to more than just highways and sprawl. Obama hopefully will change course on this one.

  7. Michael Wells Says:


    I was thinking of doing just that,then got distracted. I definitely will, even though its out of committee. We can’t just sit and expect Obama or the Congress to do the right thing without public support. Its amazing what a few letters can sometimes do in shaping legislation.

    Obama is trying to do several things at once — bump the economy, invest for the future, build bi-partisanship, etc. The tax cuts which make little sense economically are an attempt to bring Republicans on board. The highway spending is outreach to the suburbs, where more people live than in cities, still. We need to be a constituency for cities and transit.

  8. Michael Wells Says:


    The reason taking a train is now a waste of time is the rail system is circa-1950’s. Lots of routes would make sense if they had high-speed rail. Flying from Portland to Seattle, a distance of under 150 miles, takes as long as driving when you consider getting to the airport an hour early and getting from both downtowns to the airports. If Amtrak had good rails like Europe, regular trains would beat cars. High speed trains would cut it even more. SF to Sacramento, same story, even SF to LA with high speed rail. All of the cities in the Northeast are close enough to their near neighbors to make rail competitive — ie Boston, New Haven, NY. Chicago, Detroit, Minneapolis. I’ll just ditto Brian about the time spent in cars vs. trains.

    As far as urban public transit, it works for the “upper end” when the alternative is being stuck in traffic and paying for parking. Maybe not in the suburbs as much.

  9. hayden fisher Says:

    The high speed train should be utilized all over the US but especially on the coasts. It’s absolutely ridiculous that it’s not. I support the tax cuts but not the highways, that’s crazy!

  10. David J. Miller Says:

    This is America… People want cars/freedom. Much of mass transit receives huge fed/local subsidies to keep fares low and ridership is still minimal when compared to autos.

    Most Americans (from the 7 figure banker descended from the Pilgrims to an immigrant laborer whose been in the US 6 months) love the freedom that autos offer and have already said no to transit when making their transportation decisions. We love the freedom to come and go as we please. When we want.

    Today my wife and I chose to leave the house at 10:45 to go look at beds for our 2 year old b/c that time fit with our family’s schedule for the day — is that petty and selfish? Btw, we left the hybrid in the driveway b/c the SUV is more comfortable for our kiddy.

    Taking the metro and the bus further out in the burbs to the store with the large selection would have added 1 hour onto our 25 minute drive. Not to mention the fare for 3 would have cost far more than the gas we consumed (gas which includes many taxes paying for the roadways we used).

    This freedom including our time (which was mentioned above) is the key to why cars are congruent with American culture. Its the same culture that makes business the most popular major amongst all undergrads in the US.

    That said, as certain areas/routes become more congested, more people will choose transit options (where they exist) and demand them where they don’t. Then transit will get $$ from policy makers. Until then, we will love our liberty, I mean autos.

  11. Swordsman Says:

    Okay, enough.

    What a load of absolute crap. “Americans love our freedom”. Yeah, okay. And Canadians, Brits, French, Germans, Dutch, Italians DON’T love their freedom?

    Yes, yes, because Americans are unique. Americans are the only liberty-loving people on the planet. And of course, freedom and liberty are synonymous with owning an SUV.

    Or not.

    The lack of mass transit isn’t because mass transit sucks, it’s because it’s been chronically underfunded in this country for about 100 years or so now. Go to New York City, London, Tokyo, Paris, Amsterdam, Chicago: these cities have decent, clean, affordable mass transit.

    Instead, let’s all be as inefficient as possible and all own two to three cars per person, jam them onto freeways that are already 8 lanes wide in both directions, sit for an hour or more in traffic. Yeah, that’s freedom, man.

  12. Swordsman Says:

    Amount of advertising for automobiles in 2008: nearly 10 billion dollars.

    Amount of adverting for mass transit in 2008: probably about 1 million dollars, if that.

    Yeah, I really wonder why Americans “have chosen” the automobile…..

  13. Swordsman Says:

    Off topic: as for business grads, yeah, that’s also worked out really well, hasn’t it? Maybe we can graduate a few more MBAs that can be gainfully employed as Starbucks baristas.

  14. hayden fisher Says:

    I feel less free in my car than anywhere else in the world. Anyone who has spent any significant amount of time in a place where mass transit exists would not advocate for more autos, roads and traffic jams. Not to mention the cost of health care associated with auto accident personal injuries and overweight Americans who don’t walk those extra few blocks everyday. The car is a fading fad, there’s no question about it. Will we rid ourselves of them completely? Of course not. But we will work to limit the necessity of autos in our lifestyle and the era of cars as status symbols is over. Like all new obsessions, the lust lingers over time and that reality augurs the fate of the auto.

    For anecdotal evidence, consider the movie Back to the Future. The movie flashes-back the apex of the suburban era (mid-80’s) to the era where downtowns thrived and suburbia (remember the farm) was a mere new vision yet to be realized and glorified. The downtown city is treated as the indicia of a time past and suburbia celebrated as next cultural evolution hidden in a time capsule when Fox goes back to the past. Fast-forward to today, downtowns (or pedestrian-friendly town centers that mimic them) are once again en vogue and recognized as the highest, most efficient and best use of property. Suburbia is dying or already dead in some places. The exurbs have emerged as somewhat of a hybrid model being rapidly redeveloped around the new urbanism and town center models.

  15. Brian Says:


    Well put. And, I’ll do you one better in terms of movie references. Cinema Paradiso tells the story of a small Italian village in the 1940s and 50s. The communal life of the village is predominantly centered on the local movie theatre, which is located in the middle of a bustling city square in which the townspeople gather, meet, walk, congregate, and hold the local business. The young boy who is the protagonist of the movie leaves the village when he reaches his late teens, and moves to Rome. The movie ends with his return to the village sometime in the late 1980s, and the once bustling square is now clogged with cars and trucks, and of course free of foot traffic. The movie ends with a shot of the now vacated and dilapidated Cinema Paradiso being dynamited – a symbolism that only the most dense could fail to perceive. I dare say that the automobile was not a source of freedom for these villagepeople, nor is it one for us.

  16. David J. Miller Says:

    Everyone done patting themselves on the back? Great. Everyone agree that the car is a fad? Excellent. Now we’re really getting somewhere.

    I didn’t write that america is better or the only country that loves liberty, I implied that it is different culturally from others with its greater emphasis on individual liberty. (For lit on this thesis check de toqueville, turner, lipset, etc). US policies and consumer behavior on ‘autos vs mass’ transit are an expression of this high ranking for personal liberty.

    In keeping with the theme expressed above, check out Cannonball Run starring Burt Reynolds. An exciting story based on the real world exploits of thrill seeking, renegade auto racers making their way from the east coast to the west in an illegal road race. I dare say, the automobile was the source of freedom for all those people, including foreign born racers who came to the US for the Cannonball Run. Hope all had a nice weekend.

  17. hayden fisher Says:

    Thanks Brian, but I think you’ve one-up’d me; what a great story! Save the dynamiting at the end of course!

    David, Robert Pirsig proposed the best description of American culture in his book “Lila” that I’ve ever ready, arguing that American culture sprang from a synthesis of the values and customs of the native American Indians roaming free in nature and the western European values and customs of the settlers’ ancestors. The Indians valued freedom and independence within the context of a village orientation and harbored a deep reverence for what lay around them; a very deep but disorganized spirituality that valued present-tense experience. In any event, it’s an interesting hypothesis and “Lila” is one of the most powerful and thought-provoking books I’ve ever read. But, back to the here-and-now, I can appreciate the thrill of driving a high performance car on a racetrack and I’m sure that the early-day highways served as great race-tracks when not overwhelmed with traffic during peak driving hours; but those days are long gone. Suburbia is far too strung-out to provide for any such relief, the highways have become moving parking lots. We will see the transformation of the car from status symbol and ultimate mode of transportation to unfashionable instrument of necessary evil in the very short-term.

  18. Wil Says:

    All this talk of congested highways only relates to rush hour. Driving on the freeway can be an exciting experience. Suburbia offers great driving experiences, one of my favourite drives is on 280 between San Francisco, and Palo Alto, right through suburbia. It’s a great place to zip along…Road trips are part of growing up in America. I have always thought that the cultural groundwork for car ownership relates to a cowboy and his horse, this seeems especially true of pick-up truck owners who use their trucks for work, and play… Large western metropolitan areas have no similarities with small Italian villages….I hope thst here is investment in more multi-fuel efficient cars first, and rail second

  19. Buzzcut Says:

    I guess nobody read the Bedard column that I linked to. He’s got numbers, you guys have touchy-feely feelings.

    The ONLY city where public transportation captures a majority of rush hour travelers is NYC. This has nothing to do with “systematic underfunding of mass transit”. Hell, the MTA invented underfunding!

    More likely, there are geographical factors that have made public transportation work in NYC (and Europe).

    I don’t think Americans have “a love affair with the car”, or that freedom explains the dominance of the auto in America. It is simple personal finance. It’s the math.

    I don’t care what you do on a bus, if it takes you hours to do what would take a fraction of that in a car, a bus makes absolutely no personal financial sense. Your time is simply far too valuable.

    In fact, the reason that the poor rely on public transportation so much more than the rich is exactly proof of my contention. The poor only rely on public transit because they have no other choice. If they were a little richer, and could afford a car, they would be far better off.

    As for high speed rail, the latest I’ve seen from Spain, which just finished their own high speed system, is that it cost roughly $1B a mile. And that’s in a country without our insane legal system where you can sue anybody at anytime for any amount of money.

    High speed rail might make a lot of sense in certain areas (Chicago could be a high speed hub, with close by Milwaukee, Detroit, Indianapolis, St. Louis, and Minneapolis). But again, the finance of the situation probably doesn’t work. Is there enough ridership from Chicago-Indianapolis to fund the capital cost of $200B (let’s say), much less the operating costs?

  20. Brian Says:

    Another comment about automobiles, suburbs, and freedom. How “free” are people living in suburbs who cannot drive? Such as: persons younger than 16 years old, teens without cars, senior citizens who no longer drive, persons with physical disabilities, those for whom owning a car is too expensive. These are not negligible populations, they are people too. The complete absence of public transit and the necessity of cars in suburbs (and in cities for that matter) severely restricts the “freedom” of these populations.

    Besides that, as someone who has taken freshman-level philosophy, I’ve never encountered accounts of “freedom” or “liberty” that depend on purchase and use of certain consumer goods.

  21. Brian Says:


    Fair points. I’m going appeal to another touchy-feely feeling to counter your hard-as-stone objective argument.

    I’m not convinced that this is true: “I don’t care what you do on a bus, if it takes you hours to do what would take a fraction of that in a car, a bus makes absolutely no personal financial sense. Your time is simply far too valuable.”

    First off, think of it this way. A lot of people once thought that increased speed of factory production would decrease working hours. This did not happen. Similarly, as Rebecca Solnit points out reliance on car travel binds people to more diffuse locales rather than freeing them from travel time. Many assume that driving saves time, but instead it changes our relationship to the world and space, creates landscapes that are oriented towards driving, and obliges us to take car trips instead of other sorts of trips. Again, if not for driving, we wouldn’t be bound to these diffuse locales, and would have “more time”. If this is too touchy-feely, I’m sure I could find “math” bearing it out.

    Secondly, yes you should “care what somebody does on a bus”, because if I remember correctly you were the one arguing that the creative class wouldn’t ride public tranportation because their time mattered too much too them. My argument is that unlike time driving, time spent on public transportation isn’t time lost – it can be spent reading, thinking, coordinating, being creative, etc. Even if travel time _per trip_ is lower in a car, that really is forfeited time to a “creative class” person – it is time that they cannot read, think, etc. Time traveling on public transit is not forfeited time.

  22. Buzzcut Says:


    I think we can test your hypothesis. We’ve got varying landscapes, some that probably meet your criteria of more compact landscapes. What are the personal finance tradeoffs of such a landscape vs. the typical suburban one?

    I think Richard has the answer. The compact landscapes have more income inequality because they’re more expensive to live in. Essentially you have the rich (Richard would call them the creative class), and the illegal immigrants who cater to them (and who live in squalor).

    That certainly explains Manhattan, which is the core of the only public transportation system in the US that captures the majority of rush hour commuters.

    Regarding what one can do in a car vs. what one can do on public transportation, you certainly can’t read in a car. But many hard core commuters do value the decompression time of their commutes. They’ve got their iPod, XM, talk radio, whatever.

  23. Brian Says:


    You missed my point. The proper comparison is to take the current paradigm in which driving is supra-ordinated above everything else and to compare it to some other paradigm one might envision in which people choose to live differently. My point is that we can envision a mode of everyday living wherein people live in such a way that they are not bound to diffuse locales, and as such are not obliged to take car trips to those locales, and thus “save time”. They recover that time for themselves, and can use that time being productive in other pursuits. The whole point is that current suburbanites bear an enormous opportunity cost to their travel. Given the spatial configurations they face on a daily basis, they are forced to spend considerable percentages of their time in transit, even if any one trip might be on average shorter than the trip taken by someone riding public transportation. Suburbanites face a hidden cost of car travel – an opportunity cost. I would indeed wager that if that opportunity cost is quantified and factored in, the “personal finance” savings to living in a suburb would dissipate and possibly evaporate.

  24. sarah Says:

    Reason prevails … mass transit is overpriced and does not work as promised. rich it is time you look at facts and not ideology

  25. Buzzcut Says:

    Brian, I look forward to someone like you crunching the numbers and doing a proper accounting showing that the average suburbanite’s time spent traveling is uneconomic.

    I think that the fact that the suburban lifestyle has lasted 60 plus years, and shows no signs of dissipating, is proof that you’re wrong.

    I also think that your prefered landscape exists in certain pockets of America, and a proper accounting of it shows that it isn’t achievable for the vast majority of Americans, unlike the suburban lifestyle.

    Finally, hybrids and their paradigm shift in fuel economy are allowing the suburban lifestyle to survive, and perhaps keep on its outward expansion. Honda’s new Insight hybrid will be another Prius-style blockbuster. Ford’s Fusion Hybrid has recieved reviews showing that it is the best mainstream hybrid yet.