Getting the Message

Two things were clear at this morning’s hearing
of the Senate Banking Committee concerning green investments in public
transportation. First, transportation experts and leading legislators
are very much in agreement on how transportation spending should
change. And second, Randal O’Toole’s days as anything other than an
anachronism are numbered.

rotoole.jpgCato Institute fellow Randal O’Toole testified in the Senate today. (Photo: Cato)

committee heard from five witnesses, one of which was Cato Institute
fellow O’Toole. Also invited were Michael Replogle of the Institute for
Transportation and Development Policy, Rutgers University urban
planning professor Clinton Andrews, West Sacramento mayor Christopher
Cabaldon, and Ernest Tollerson of the New York City MTA.

O’Toole aside, the witnesses largely agreed in their
recommendations: New transit investments are absolutely necessary for
economic and environmental reasons, but most of the benefits from such
investments will be missed without tight integration between
transportation investment and land use planning.

It was a message almost perfectly tailored to rebut O’Toole before he ever spoke.

is his habit, O’Toole began by noting that 40 years’ worth of transit
investments have not produced significant reductions in driving or
greenhouse gas emissions. A good talking point, perhaps — but as
previous testimony had made clear, this was largely due to 40 years’
worth of disregard for the importance of land use rules.

continued by criticizing smart growth in his home state of Oregon,
declaring that efforts to change land use patterns were failures and falsely alleging
that transit ridership in Portland has declined since 2000. He cited
his own analyses, which attempt to demonstrate that transit is actually
dirtier than personal automobile use. And he railed against the evil of
transit subsidies, a market-distorting abomination in his view.

performance earned dismal reviews. One by one, the other witnesses
pointed out that failure to adequately examine land use effects
rendered O’Toole’s analyses worthless.

choice isn’t just about direct energy use, they explained; it’s about
how increased driving or transit use affects development patterns and
broader economic activity. Moreover, increased transit use improves the
efficiency of driving by reducing congestion.

Cabaldon pointed out that a 1 percent increase in transit ridership in
his city corresponded to a 10 percent decline in congestion, saving
millions of dollars in lost time and wasted fuel.

were the witnesses the only ones to hit back at the Cato fellow. Sen.
Bob Menendez (D-NJ) icily noted that the last transportation bill
included some $200 billion for highways. "That’s a subsidy," he said.

piled on, noting that the failure to toll crowded roads appropriately
or charge for "free" parking constituted yet another massive subsidy to
drivers, encouraging auto-oriented land use patterns.

fired back, arguing that those touting the benefits of transit
investment overwhelmingly cited New York City. In his view, it
appeared, transit is vital to New York but irrelevant to all other
metropolitan areas in the country.

This seemed to irk Sen.
Mark Warner (D-VA), whose Northern Virginia constituency is part of a
Washington metro area in which over 1.2 million trips are taken on
transit every weekday. He countered O’Toole’s negative assessment of
transit’s success rate in shifting land use patterns, citing Arlington
County. There, an effort to build densely around Metro’s Orange Line
has led to population and jobs growth and massive private investment,
all without an appreciable increase in congestion.

Ultimately, O’Toole was left complaining that attempts to build private transit systems were illegal — illegal
— in most cities in America. He was seemingly oblivious to the irony:
that sprawl, which O’Toole considers a perfect expression of consumer
demand, has flourished thanks to the fact that for decades it has been
illegal to build dense, walkable neighborhoods in most of America’s big

O’Toole was without friends in a room of leaders
that finally seemed to grasp how planning had gone wrong in the last
half century. At this moment — with vehicle miles traveled falling,
with central city population growth rates increasing as suburban growth
rates fall, and with central city housing prices showing resilience as
exurban neighborhoods continue to experience rapid decline — Cato’s
myth of sprawl as the American dream seems more hollow than ever.

Happily, legislators — at least those who attended today’s hearing — increasingly seem disposed to acknowledge reality.


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