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American Transport Policy, Stuck in Highway Mode

» The highway and transit lobbies are mutually dependent, with the much more powerful roads interest playing the dominant role.

Beginning in the early 1960s, a coalition of mayors, environmentalists, neighborhood groups, and other supporters of cities worked to expand federal aid to transit, arguing that the massive investment in the Interstate Highway System was depriving urban areas of their well-being. They suggested that more investment in public transportation was a necessary antidote to the destruction caused to inner-city communities as a result of megalomaniacal post-war planning efforts. In many ways, their work was successful even in the early years — Congress invested in new rapid transit networks in Washington, San Francisco, and Atlanta, and by 1975, the government was contributing 28% of all nationwide spending on public transportation. Its share had been only 1% just ten years before.

Yet, as Alan Altshuler and David Luberoff describe it in Mega-Projects: the Changing Politics of Urban Public Investment, the transit lobby has been systematically linked up with highway proponents since the early 1970s. They write:

“This coalition… achieved its greated victories in the early 1970s — mainly by threatening to oppose continued federal highway aid unless prohighway forced joined them in securing large scale funding for transit as well. Though highway interests resisted at first, they eventually acquiesced as part of a strategy to counter the dual effects of growing antihighway sentiment in major cities and presidential efforts, for general budgetary reasons, to curtail highway spending.” (176-177)

In other words, by blackmailing the roads lobby into believing that its existence would be threatened by much stronger anti-highway forces, transit was able to jump on the federal transportation bandwagon. The strategy was quite effective: even during the government-service-reducing Reagan years, federal involvement in public transportation continued unabated (though it is true that a short-lived federal operating aid program lost funds).

Indeed, both transit and highways lobbying groups work to increase transportation funding as a whole, rarely suggesting that funds from one side of the table be transferred to the other. The roughly 3:1 revenue split between roads and public transportation at the federal level has been maintained as status quo for years, and even Representative Jim Oberstar’s (D-MN) relatively progressive bill this year does little to increase transit aid relative to that devoted to roads — the general push has simply been for more transportation money in general.

Highway proponents, led by groups like the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO), cannot argue against transit because of a widespread sense that a transportation funding bill will continue receiving support from Congresspeople representing urban areas only if it includes a significant share devoted to transit.

Transit-backers, meanwhile, have no choice but to support huge highway allocations if they want a transportation bill to pass in the rural and suburban-oriented Senate. Even Transportation For America (T4A), an organization whose mission includes fighting climate change and reducing car use, did not specifically advocate a expansion of transit aid and consequent decline in highway spending in its platform, couching its goals in ambiguous phrases like “efficiency” and “economic competitiveness.” The transportation bill ultimately has to pass, and the only way it has happened thus far is by forging an alliance between proponents of both modes. The same will have to be true this year or next, whenever Congress gets down to reauthorizing the existing legislation.

The political inevitability of the roads/public transportation coalition makes it difficult to envision a federal transportation bill with spending priorities on transit rather than highways. Considering the makeup of Congress, it would be impossible for transit advocates to stake out a position on their own and expect the support of a majority of legislators. The largely automobile-driving constituency of said congresspeople is unlikely to change dramatically save for major unforeseen increases in fuel prices. Wide-scale reductions in roads spending in favor of transit capital expenditures at the federal level, therefore, are unlikely for the envisionable future.

8 Comments | Leave a Reply »
  • BLambert

    I’m pretty sure you mean “monomaniacal” and not “megalomaniacal” there…

  • BLambert

    Fair enough.

  • Sounds like our New York State Legislature. Democrats and Republicans working together to derail progressive reforms and screw the people of New York!

  • Deacon

    “In other words, by blackmailing the roads lobby…” IMHO lobbying and blackmailing are the same thing, its just a difference of where the money changes hands. Blackmailing the blackmailer and vice versa sounds like a lot of fiddle-dicking going on at the expense of the people

  • EngineerScotty

    Part of the reason that the proposed Columbia River Crossing between Oregon and Washington (a replacement for the functionally-obsolete Interstate drawbridges where I-5 crosses the Columbia) is a widely-derided $4 billion piece of pork, is the need to please both transit and road lobbies in Oregon and Washingon State (let alone inside the Beltway).

    Portland, OR won’t support the project unless it includes light-rail and pedestrian facilities. The two DOTs, and the feds, want to bring a five-mile stretch of I-5, with the bridge at the center, up to current highway standards (right now there are numerous closely-spaced interchanges and too-short onramps on both sides of the river). Other cheaper options, such as an auxilary bridge adjacent to the existing bridges, seem to be completely out of scope, based on the project requirements set forth by ODOT and WSDOT.

    It will be interesting to see what happens; as nobody on either side of the river seems interested in paying the current pricetag…

  • Mad Park

    @6 – In the end, the requirements outlined by various stakeholders in of the conurbation of Portland must be met. They are the folks, after all, who in some ways have shown the rest of us “The Way” on so many transport and planning issues. This is not to say MAX and the streetcar and the zoning guidelines, etc are perfect, but they started to DEAL with these issues a quarter of a century ago. The era of building highway-only bridges is over – multi purpose, multi functional are the 21st Centruy ways. The sooner we all absorb this, the better off we’ll be.

  • Future Schema

    One aspect of this story that I find interesting, but is missing from this and other articles, is the progressive under-representation of urban areas in Congress. As urban areas have grown, the number of representatives has remained fixed. Congressional and state assembly districts, once created, do not go away, so as urban areas grow in residents and density, it becomes harder and harder for them to extract more representation in the legislature. Rural areas remain relatively more represented and they have been instrumental in keeping highway and road interests paramount. Virginia is a good example where the population of the state has remained relatively constant, the urban areas have grown and yet the power in the state house has turned more on the voting patterns of rural districts.

    A shift to more transit oriented funding will hinge in part on urban areas gaining a greater voice in the legislatures.

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