We Need Better Public Transportation — But Can We Afford It?

Here’s an article co-written by environmentalist superstar Bill McKibben that speaks to the need for better public transportation. The authors point out that transportation generally contributes 27% of the total greenhouse gas emissions. Since transportation is 98%+ based on gasoline and diesel, it comes with a huge price tag in terms of not only CO2 but damage to our lungs and our ecosystems, and carries threats to our national security as well.

The article argues for a 3-step mass transit program to “help our communities thrive, protect our climate, and promote human health.”

But what about the cost of a massive improvement in public transportation? Who’s going to pay for this? Isn’t it common knowledge that our government is broke? Actually, no. For those of you who may not have seen it, here’s “The Story of Broke.”

And here’s another way of examining the issue. Take a step back and examine the essential structure and function of the public sector. In principle, government raises revenue from taxes on one hand, and, on the other, allocates that revenue into areas where we see a benefit for the people: national defense, infrastructure, criminal justice, etc. We can all debate the allocation according to our political ideology. Do we want to recalculate entitlements? Re-adjust the defense budget? Not a chance; there is no political will for any of this.

So as long as we’re OK on talking about things that will never happen, let’s rethink the revenue side. Here are two ideas on this subject that make sense to me; I’d be interested in your opinions.

1) Tax Wealth. Take Warren Buffet up on his suggestion; it is true, as he says, that the mega-rich have been “coddled long enough by a billionaire-friendly Congress.”

Taxing wealth is a good idea for many reasons, one of which is rooted in concerns for the quality of our democracy. Effective government is rooted in an educated, informed electorate, and the shrinking of the middle class and the even-widening gulf between rich and poor is ruining our republic. In particular:

• the richest quintile of Americans owns 93% of non-home wealth

• for Americans with incomes over $10 million, nearly half of their income comes from capital gains and dividends, on most of which they pay only a 15% tax

• from 2002 to 2007, two-thirds of all income went to the richest 1%

• in the first year after the recession, a startling 93% of all new income went to the richest 1%.

Yes, tax the billionaires, and use the revenue to build things that the average citizen really needs, like environmentally friendly transportation. Tax the wealth that passes freely from one generation to the next, and is gifted to people who use it to exert enormous power, many of whom wouldn’t know a decent day’s work if it slapped them across the face.

2) Tax Polluters. The only reason that our civilization is in the process of ruining the only home it has is that there is a huge financial incentive to do exactly that. Our global energy policy makes it artificially inexpensive for each of us, in our day-to-day decision making about how we live our lives, to consume resources — energy in particular. To the degree that we actively promote the consumption of our resources, we’re actively accelerating the destruction of our Earth.

We have ample evidence that the use of fossil fuels is wrecking our planet, but we seem to be mysteriously powerless to deal with this.

How about this: If you want energy from fossil fuels, we ask you to pay for it. Oil should not be subsidized by our governments, which it is today to the tune of $500 billion annually on a worldwide basis.

We’re also going to ask that you clean up after your mess. In the U.S. alone, the coal industry is causing $250 billion in healthcare costs annually, mostly via lung disease. The people who live within a mile of the San Diego Freeway (US 405, near where I live in Southern California) suffer several times the incidence of lung cancer experienced by people outside that region. And one other thing, we’re going to ask you to pay for the long-term environmental damage in the form of ocean acidification and global climate change. Those figures are far into the trillions, costs which should be included in the price of coal, oil, and gas.

Two ideas, submitted for your consideration.

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