Assemblymember Pamela Hunter’s and State Senator John Mannion’s proposal to subsidize car driving by defunding public transit will entrench the very problem they want to solve. They are right that household budgets are getting squeezed by a sharp and unexpected increase in the costs of operating a car. But they offer the same solution that local politicians have been offering to this same problem for decades with no positive effect: a small subsidy for drivers at the cost of true alternative transportation options.
Gas costs more today than it did last year. That’s a real problem for people who drive a lot and don’t have a lot of extra room in their household budget to handle that new unexpected expense. The people who drive the most are mostly pretty well off financially, and many of them probably do have enough money on hand to cover the rise in the price of gas. But there definitely are also a lot of other people less well off who have to drive every day and who are really hurting because of this rise in the price of gas.
In a recent Op Ed, Assemblymember Hunter explained the immediate causes of this gas price spike: oil corporations produced less gas during Covid lockdowns, and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine disrupted global oil supply chains. The result is that there’s less gas available right now, so oil companies raised prices. Assemblymember Hunter’s (and Senator Mannion’s) answer is to shift money from road maintenance and public transit to subsidize gas purchases by 8 cents per gallon.
(For what it’s worth, this temporary price shock is already fading away. According to AAA, the price of gas in New York peaked early last month at $4.46 and has fallen steadily since).
There is nothing new about any of this. I’m 31 years old, and some part of the world has been at war over oil for more than half my life. Gas was more expensive when I was in high school than it is today, and it’s going to get a lot more expensive before I die. OPEC may try to manipulate the price of gas by increasing or decreasing production, but there’s nothing they can do about the fact that they will exhaust their reserves in the not too distant future.
And beyond all that, even if the New York State legislature could somehow protect car drivers from sharp unexpected increases in the price of gas, it wouldn’t do much at all to make driving more affordable. Huge unpredictable expenses are a guaranteed experience for every car owner. Your brakes give out and have to be replaced. You get in an accident and your insurance goes up. You drive through a speed trap and get a ticket. All of these absolutely normal events in the life of a car owner have exactly the same impact on household budgets as last month’s gas price spike.
The simple fact is that car ownership imposes unpredictable expenses on too many households hardly able to afford it. It requires people to have a reserve of money—whether that’s personal savings, or friends or family willing and able to lend money—at all times to deal with these emergency expenses. That may work out for people making decent money and people with family wealth, but it’s a disaster for anybody living paycheck to paycheck. These daily disasters are so common that we hardly even think of them as problems for public policy. But just as people who depend on cars need relief from high gas prices, they also need relief from the chronic financial stress of car ownership.
But instead, public policy in Onondaga County has always pushed poor people to buy cars. The old Wheels-for-Work program provided loans for people to buy a car if they got a job—saddling workers with a debt they could only pay off by keeping a job that depended on the source of their debt. The Rides-to-Work program—and its successors, JOBSPlus! and Providence Services—subsidized taxi rides for carless commuters with the explicit expectation that workers would save their first paychecks to buy a car.
Transit austerity hangs behind all these efforts to get poor people driving. Public transportation is the obvious alternative for people who can’t afford—or don’t want to deal with—the enormous and unpredictable expense of driving. But the Federal Government, New York State, and Onondaga County have bled Centro dry, so Syracuse’s bus service is just a pale imitation of the fast, frequent, reliable transit system that this community needs and deserves. Compare the urgency behind this gas subsidy with the silence from Syracuse’s legislative delegation last Fall when Covid forced Centro to cut its service to the bone.
The Hunter/Mannion proposal sits squarely in this long line of failed transportation policies. It’s a small subsidy that makes driving a little less painful for poor families, but it gets that money by raiding the State’s transit budget. This would further degrade Centro’s service, push more people to purchase a car, and expose more families to the unpredictable budget-breaking expenses that are a normal feature of car ownership.