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Let's break this issue down a bit.
Roadways are entirely subsidized by tax dollars. Except for the handful of toll roads in this country, there is no cost per trip for individual uses. We rely on local, state, and national government to manage our roadways. They are managed as a non-profit system for the greater good of drivers. This is done, in part, because roadways are seen as important to our economy and our day to day lives.
Mass transit is partially subsidized by tax dollars. They rely on fares from riders to pay part of the costs of managing the system. In Long Island, the bus system is partially privatized and managed by a large international company called Veolia. Unlike roadways in Long Island, the bus system is managed as a for-profit organization.
Of course, here is the rub. The roadways, which benefit the middle class and wealthy, are entirely subsidized by the public. The mass transit system, which benefits the poor, is a profit generating system.
Long time readers of this blog will know that I am unashamedly capitalistic in support of sustainability as a form of economic development. Yet I am sure all of us agree that there are systems that are better managed by governments. I don't think any of us want to deal with the myriad of problems that would emerge with privately held roadways. At the same time, I think it is worthwhile to consider the fairness of a system that creates a for-profit environment for transit for the poor and a non-profit environment for transit for the middle class and wealthy.
Recently, there was a letter to the editor in our local newspaper, Newsday, that bemoaned the closure of local roads during a major snowstorm. The purpose of the closure was to ensure the safety of drivers and to allow the roads to be cleaned without causing problems for drivers. The writer stated that he was upset about the road closure because he needed workers who do not live in the community to get to the area to shovel them out.
In my mind, this letter highlighted the issue we have with roads and transit. Many of us feel entitled to complete access to roads. Yet at the same time, as a society we are happy to turn over the transit for the poor to profit generating companies.
Let's take a quick look at the income disparities on Long Island. In Hempstead, the annual per capita income is about $21,000. Many of these folks rely on the local privatized bus service for their means of transportation. In nearby Garden City, the per capita income is about $62,000, and these folks largely rely on free roadways.
What often happens with these geographic disparities is that the poor must take mass transit to work in wealthy areas, often in service industry jobs. On the East End of Long Island, home of the Hamptons, they have trouble finding workers to take service jobs in tony neighborhoods because workers have a hard time getting there. As a result, they have invested heavily in expanding bus service. Check out this video for more information about the transit disparities in eastern Long Island.
How to spend tax dollars on transportation is a tough thing for local governments. Managing the best way to ensure access and fairness while optimizing tax dollars should take into consideration the needs drivers and users of mass transit.