» 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.