OEDEL: Subsidizing mobility

June 2, 2013 

Surprised that Democratic former Macon Mayor C. Jack Ellis and conservative pundit Erick Erickson are singing the same tune? They appear to be doing just that by implicitly championing big public subsidies for transportation to connect Macon passengers with bigger cities.

At the mayoral candidates’ forum on May 23, Ellis offered as his vision for Macon-Bibb’s longer-run future the notion of “really link(ing) the city (of Macon) with the city of Atlanta” through commuter rail. More or less simultaneously, on May 24 in The Telegraph, Erickson urged Macon-based fliers like him to use the heavily federally subsidized “Silver Air” for passenger trips from Middle Georgia Regional Airport to Washington, D.C., via Atlanta.

Ellis didn’t mention the massive subsidies that would be required to resurrect passenger rail to Atlanta. Erickson didn’t mention the incredible public subsidies per passenger that are already being supplied to prop up Macon’s moribund passenger air service.

The air carrier funding comes under the absurdly misnamed federal program, “Essential Air Service,” or EAS. “Inessential Air Service” or “Completely Superfluous Air Service” would have been more appropriate.

How big are those subsidies? Taylor Brown wrote an eye-opening paper for my transportation law course last fall at Mercer’s law school revealing the public costs under the last carrier, Sun Air, to be a staggering $979 per passenger per trip to Atlanta’s airport.

Given that kind of money, it’d be more fiscally conservative for the public to whisk each elite passenger to their Atlanta air connections with full police escort in a Rolls Royce with champagne, caviar and live entertainment.

After doing his research, Brown colorfully concluded that the U.S. Department of Transportation’s “contract” with its Macon passenger air carrier instead, “functions in effect as a weekly ‘gift’ to an airline of the DOT’s choosing, with absolutely no input from the local community.”

As for passenger rail linking Macon and Atlanta, even under the most optimistic ridership projections, public subsidies for the service would exceed $1,000 per passenger. Sure, it’d be fun to ride the rails of nostalgia as an amusement, but commuters would still use their cars.

It’s not that the government should categorically eschew subsidizing transportation. Since the framing of the Constitution, the federal government has been empowered to grant transportation subsidies. The expensive but seemingly “free” interstate highways are a testament to that understanding.

Article I of the original Constitution includes a provision for Congress to fund and build “post roads” at congressional discretion. That reflects the longstanding view that mobility and connectivity are critical American concerns, and that the federal government should encourage both.

Yet the framers also seem unlikely to have endorsed subsidizing transportation at indefinite, unchecked costs like those for passenger rail and air service to Atlanta. There’s a perfectly good subsidized highway that will get you there faster and cheaper.

In the public policy sphere, we’re missing ways to think methodically and seriously about how to measure one transportation subsidy against another. Is passenger air service to Atlanta better than passenger rail? Is widening Forest Hill Road throughout better than just fixing its intersections and providing bike lanes and sidewalks? Is one souped-up interstate interchange at I-16/I-75 more important than just about everything else put together -- for decades?

And those kinds of questions don’t occur in an equitable vacuum. You have to consider the justice dimension of subsidies. Should well-to-do air travelers get more subsidies than poor, carless citizens?

From my perspective, the single best way for us to subsidize transportation locally is to provide free work transportation 24/7 to any unemployed person in Macon to anywhere around here that a job exists.

I’ve floated that idea for 20 years. Unfortunately, a long string of our leaders has preferred to concentrate big public bucks on ever-faster and wider roads. Rather than contribute to stability and growth in Macon, those investments have instead created yet more instruments of isolation for too many of our disconnected, carless citizens.

Sadly but predictably, Macon’s public funding for transportation has on balance for decades been more counterproductive than productive when measured in human terms.

David Oedel teaches transportation law at Mercer University.

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