An article in The New York Times Nov. 29 informs us that the agency that manages the Golden Gate Bridge is considering soliciting donations from users of the bridge to help pay for its upkeep. Other goofy fund-raising gimmicks are also being considered. This comes just after a toll increase, in September, from $3 to $5. From such a report it’s hard to resist the temptation to recall those old jokes about selling the Brooklyn Bridge.
Tolls on bridges and tunnels and highways were originally supposed to be for paying off the cost of their construction. In most cases, that occurred long ago. Those tolls have now become a permanent “user tax,” substituting for a more equitable way of funding operation and maintenance. That might consist of making big commercial profit-making users pay based on what the use of the bridge, tunnel or highway gives them, and what their vehicles cost it in maintenance. With the current toll structure personal vehicle users are in effect subsidizing corporate profits. But beyond this, highway, bridge and tunnel operation, like other essential public services, can be funded by a progressive tax structure that appropriately taxes the rich and big business. After all, we don’t require only those with kids in school to pay for public education, or any other basic service that benefits society as a whole.
The Times article goes on to report that public transit agencies nationwide are responding to reduced ridership and budget deficits by raising fares and cutting services. Not the first time that’s been done, but this time there’s a new, heavier emphasis on that “solution”. It doesn’t require the genius of our overworked rocket scientist friend to figure out what effect increased fares and reduced services will have on mass transit ridership (and consequently, on road and highway traffic). This is the kind of management that contributed so much to the destruction of almost all of our country’s rail passenger service during the second half of the 20th century. A bridge is in somewhat of a “captive market” situation, but mass transit systems are generally not. The one-way Amtrak fare between Philadelphia and New York – about 100 miles – is now $52 regular or $102 on the new Acela express. Is that any way to get excess traffic off the forever-being-widened New Jersey Turnpike? In the 1970s, the one-way commuter railroad fare between my neighborhood and downtown was 35 cents; it’s now $3.
Some years back, the peace movement produced posters, bumper stickers and T-shirts bearing a graphic of children playing, with the caption, “It will be a great day when our schools get all the money they need and the Air Force has to hold a bake sale to buy a bomber.” Bazaars and similar fundraisers have long been used to try to make up for the inadequate funding of public schools; now we see this kind of absurdity becoming part of the funding base for other essential public services.
Meanwhile, no budget crunch squeezes the military, and favored corporations are asking for, and getting, enormous handouts from local and state governments, and especially the federal government. To top it off, the Bush administration now wants to spend billions (and sacrifice who-knows-how-many lives) to make Iraq safe(r) for milking by the administration’s oil company cronies. Those are the same funds that are never available in sufficient amounts for schools, mass transit, all our other essential services, now even landmark bridges like the Golden Gate. How often do we hear “there’s no money”? No money? Baloney! There’s plenty of it. This is still the richest country in the world. A basic change of spending priorities is needed, and we have to fight for it. In addition to the other basic public services that we the people are entitled to, mass transit must be adequately funded for it to be low-cost, and with convenient, frequent service to and from wherever people need to travel. In particular, the most effective form of mass transit – rail services – should be maintained and expanded.
John Morris is a contributor from Philadelphia. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org