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Saturday, August 17, 2019  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Opinion >  Syndicated columns

Smart Bombs: Let the future drive transit policy

The following comment on The Spokesman-Review’s website appeared after an item on the proposal to raise the sales tax to improve and maintain bus service and to add trolley transit service across the city’s center.

“Why can’t STA (Spokane Transit Authority) pay for their own way? Nobody helps those who drive their own cars offset the cost of their transportation, why should everyone else pony up to help pay the way for those who take the bus.”

It’s a common misperception in our car-centric culture that drivers pay full freight for their daily trips, while transit riders siphon tax dollars. The cost of driving is subsidized, which is precisely why there are fewer transit options. And if we ever quit pretending the carbon trapped in the atmosphere is cost-free, we’ll find out if the love affair with the automobile was just a cheap, subsidized date.

Young people have not been seduced by cars. This attitude is captured in “Millennials in Motion,” a U.S. Public Interest Research Group report that warns policymakers that old assumptions shouldn’t drive future plans. Problem is, most of the current leaders making long-range decisions belong to a generation that cruised Riverside and gave nicknames to their lovingly detailed cars.

My teenage kids think it’s weird and wasteful to go for a Sunday drive. A driver’s license? Meh. We should listen to young people before making decisions they’ll have to deal with. We’re already handing them auto-driven sprawl.

At a recent Washington Policy Center presentation on the transit proposal, a libertarian speaker quipped that it would be better to supply transit users with Priuses. As if the ride is the sole cost of transportation.

But what about road maintenance? Where would they park? How much would it cost if they got into accidents? What about insurance, gas, theft and all of the traffic-related costs run up by law enforcement and the criminal justice system?

The Central City Line (trolley) would carry a price tag of $72 million, with about $4.1 million more needed for annual operations. The total price tag for the North Spokane Corridor once it’s completed (if it’s completed) is $1.2 billion. If it were tolled so that it paid for itself, it would be empty.

But what about those empty (not really) buses? And why are they so big? Most transportation options are built with peak use in mind. Most of the time, the ferries are too big and the freeways are too wide. Most of the time, motorists don’t need the back seats.

Americans don’t generally think of it that way. They feel entitled to the tax dollars, because they don’t believe they’re being subsidized, or … this is America! Cars rule! So we think nothing of destroying particular neighborhoods, usually low-income, with freeways. This doesn’t bother most people, because it’s for a greater good. But so is that bus you’re stuck behind.

In 2010, vehicle crashes cost $871 billion in the United States, according to a 2014 report from the National Highway and Traffic Safety Administration report: $277 billion in economic costs and $594 billion in harm from the loss of life and the pain and decreased quality of life from injuries. That’s from a total of 24 million collisions, yielding 33,000 fatalities and 3.9 million injuries. Just sitting in traffic costs $1,700 per household annually, according to another study.

As for direct road spending, a Tax Foundation analysis shows the gas tax, tolls and other vehicle fees cover just 50.7 percent of the costs across America. The rest is from other sources. In Spokane, we pay a property tax assessment for maintenance. If you don’t drive, you still pay.

So, sure, put more cars on the roads. Just know that it won’t be a free ride.

Associate Editor Gary Crooks can be reached at or (509) 459-5026. Follow him on Twitter @GaryCrooks.
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