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Friday, 11 August 2017 05:15

Tax the Rich to Improve Public Transportation

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nycsubwayWhy shouldn't the rich be taxed to improve public transportation? (Photo: Josh Hallett)

When Elizabeth Warren was running for her Massachusetts Senate seat in 2012, she made the telling point that corporations are subsidized by government services. They benefit from public education, highways and other government-run programs, while also securing tax breaks. In urban areas, one of the most significant government financial outlays that aids businesses is mass transit, which is paid for by the public through tax expenditures and user fees. In significant-size cities, private enterprise would be dramatically curtailed if public transportation became unreliable and insufficient.

New York City, which is highly dependent upon its public train system, is currently experiencing a breakdown of its subway infrastructure, including mechanical failures and power outages, among other serious problems. These issues have developed after many years of deficient funding for repairs. As a result, riders are not infrequently facing long delays in getting to and from work.

New York City Democratic Mayor Bill de Blasio has an idea for a long-term boost to the ailing mass transit system. According to NBC Channel 4 in New York,

The mayor of New York City wants to tax the wealthiest 1 percent to fund repairs and improvements to the beleaguered subway system….

"Instead of searching for a quick-fix that doesn't exist, or simply forking over more and more of our tax dollars every year, we have come up with a fair way to finance immediate and long-term transit improvement," de Blasio said in a statement Sunday. 

The tax would increase the top income tax rate from about 3.9 percent to 4.4 percent for married couples who make more than $1 million and individuals making more than $500,000, city officials said. It would affect about 32,000 of New Yorkers filing taxes in the city, or just less than 1 percent, officials said.

"Rather than sending the bill to working families and subway and bus riders already feeling the pressure of rising fares and bad service, we are asking the wealthiest in our city to chip in a little extra," de Blasio said.

De Blasio says the plan would generate about $800 million a year.

De Blasio's proposal is an appropriate one for funding public transportation reports in New York and many other locales. These types of ideas are vital to keeping public transportation functioning in cities -- and some rural areas -- across the nation. Under Trump, the federal government won't be coming to the rescue, as reported by Laura Bliss in CityLab:

When the White House clucks its tongue at the state of the nation’s failure to invest in infrastructure, it does not then go on to suggest that government should pay for infrastructure: “[S]imply providing more Federal funding for infrastructure is not the solution.”

There’s not a lot of explanation about why that is, but the budget does detail which transportation funding sources deserve to be axed. The U.S. DOT faces a 13 percent slash to its total discretionary budget. Between cuts to Amtrak, regional transit grants, and a plug-pull to the ailing Highway Trust Fund, a theme emerges: Projects that can’t turn a dime don’t deserve federal taxpayer support. Which means most infrastructure projects. Fixing roads, building bridges, and running trains, it seems, is worthwhile only when someone can profit. 

In short, the Trump budget presumes that privatization will rebuild the United States' infrastructure. However, as CityLab points out, there is no profit to be found in public transportation, if fares remain affordable. In fact, there is not a profit in highways either, unless they are expensive toll roads.

Highways have contributed to urban sprawl, but public transportation centralizes population and cuts down on carbon emitted from cars. It's an environmentally friendlier form of transportation. There is little doubt that more money spent on improving urban mass transit would help reduce the trend toward more exurban growth, which translates into a greater dependence on cars and an increased threat to climate change.

An Associated Press article on de Blasio's news conference reported,

"People do not want to see this madness continue," de Blasio declared, citing people getting work reprimands, picking their kids up late and missing doctor appointments because of subway delays.

Henry Garrido, executive director of District Council 37, the municipal labor union, said that sometimes even the people tasked with fixing the subway can't get to work on time.

The number of subway delays has tripled in the past five years to 70,000 per month, and trains are overcrowded on some lines. About 5.7 million people take the subway on an average work day.

De Blasio is not by any means a flawlessly progressive mayor, but here he is promoting a sound idea: Make the rich pay a share of the costs of a service that is essential to their bottom line.