Broken Clocks at the Washington Post

Broken Clocks at the Washington Post

Benjamin Ross: Broken Clocks at the Washington Post

The libertarian transportation writer Sam Staley is like a broken clock. He always says the same thing–put the free market to work. And when he gets something right, every twelve hours or so, it’s because he doesn’t know what time it is.

In Sunday’s Washington Post, Staley offers his thoughts on how to improve the Washington Metro. His first recommendation? “If customers paid more to travel at peak times,” the system could pay for more trains. Our transit expert doesn’t know, it seems, that Metro has always charged more during rush hour. Or that last year, at the urging of transit advocates, it added an extra surcharge in the busiest period.

Where else can Metro get money? Staley suggests imitating Hong Kong, which pays for transit by massing skyscrapers around train stations and taxing the owners.

There’s a little problem here. Staley is a leading defender of putting zoning decisions in the hands of small suburban villages. It’s well established that this empowers not-in-my-backyard homeowners to prevent dense development. One of the reasons for the Washington Metro’s success is that most suburban zoning is done at the county level. These jurisdictions are large enough that both people who need affordable housing and people who want to keep it out have votes. Apartments and offices have been allowed–albeit at densities far below Hong Kong’s–in the vicinity of most rail stations. The development that has given Washington the second-highest subway ridership in the country would never have happened under Staley’s preferred system.

Ignorant and inconsistent Staley may be, but he has a perch at the Reason Foundation, a right-wing think tank funded by David Koch. In the debased state of current policy debate, it seems, that’s enough to get you taken seriously.