Which is to say, the problem is not only how we get around but how we live. You cannot fix the transportation problem without fixing the city schools, without reforming the tax codes and regulations that send families and businesses fleeing to the suburbs, without addressing crime (New York City’s urban renaissance was made possible almost exclusively by the fact that the Giuliani administration got crime under control), and without a hundred other things that have nothing to do with asphalt or railways. That is not going to happen. But building new roads is as likely to cause traffic congestion as to relieve it: It is a de facto subsidy for suburban and exurban sprawl, especially if the underlying incentives for de-urbanization remain unchanged. As one analyst put it: “If you build it, you will sit in traffic on it.” And even relatively densely populated and mass-transit-friendly places such as Northern Virginia find it hard to make public transportation a real economic win: On net, Northern Virginia commuters receive a subsidy from the less-developed areas of the state. Mass-transit users complain about fares, but New York City subway riders receive a $1.11 subsidy from taxpayers for every trip they take, while riders on the Metro-North line receive a $4.26 subsidy per ride, and those on the filthy and unreliable Long Island Railroad receive a $7.34 subsidy for a ride not worth $0.02 to any sensible human being.
The final leg of my journey is the opposite of the first: from the New Jersey suburbs into the Financial District. At the Woodrow Wilson Service Area — you’re nobody in New Jersey until you have a turnpike toilet named after you — a scruffy young couple who seem to belong in a Bruce Springsteen song ask me if there happens to be a full-service liquor store hidden somewhere between the Starbucks and the Roy Rogers. Ten o’clock in the morning, this is. They go away disappointed. I hope they take the train.
There is no place quite like New Jersey to appreciate the triumphal, brutal vastness of the existing American transportation infrastructure. The Dwight D. Eisenhower National System of Interstate and Defense Highways is surely the largest exercise in economic central planning in modern American history, forming a socioeconomic Berlin Wall in many large cities, blighting many more, and connecting a whole lot of nowhere with even more nowhere in the vast empty plains between. The costs of maintaining it are astounding, thousands of dollars per mile each year, all 47,182 miles. It cannot be unbuilt, so those costs are never going away. Add to that the endless state and local thoroughfares, the turnpikes and toll roads, the trains, buses, subways, and streetcars, and the scope of the thing looks unmanageable, which it certainly is.
You can make some useful reforms: Governor McDonnell’s bill converts Virginia’s cents-per-gallon gasoline levy into a percentage-based sales tax, thereby indexing it. Virginia also identified discrete transportation entities, such as particular bus routes, that are economically self-sufficient or nearly so, and structured incentives to encourage others to become similarly efficient. There is room at the margins for some privatization, for consumer-choice initiatives, public-private partnerships, and the like, and new technology means that we could, if we so desired, effectively make every road a toll road. (The tracking that would be necessary raises serious privacy concerns.) Express-bus services are far less expensive than building railways, and they have the added benefit of being flexible. They also attract entrepreneurial energy: The old Chinatown city-to-city buses did such brisk business that they attracted high-end competitors, and it is now possible to travel between cities in comfortable motorcoaches with Wi-Fi and other amenities. Breaking up municipal mass-transit monopolies, taking a liberal approach to licensure, and the expansion of bus lanes and high-occupancy-vehicle lanes are sensible ways for conservatives to encourage market-based solutions for commuters. What is needed is not sweeping national or state legislation, or multi-billion-dollar “investments” directed by Washington, but an iterative, piecemeal approach at the local and regional level, a process of steady and constant reform and innovation — competent governing, in short. Governor McDonnell’s model — pass a big bill hoping to solve the problem in one dramatic movement — will not get it done. Transportation, particularly mass transit, feels like a liberal issue to many conservatives, but there is more to it than Amtrak contracts for the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees. Republicans, particularly at the state and local level, should be more energetic in their approach to the issue.
But in the end conservatives are left arguing that we can do a better job managing a transportation network that is Soviet in both its scope and its main model of economic organization. Waiting is of course the characteristic economic activity in all socialist systems, and American commuters are getting a concentrated dose of it, their own version of those poor Russians’ queuing up for sobachya radost sausages — millions of voters and taxpayers waiting out there in the fumes, counting the inches to the off-ramp, unwitting victims of an irrational system that they never had a say in planning but cannot imagine doing without.