» Because state DOTs have a preference for roads spending, it’s likely that transit will continue to be short-shrifted.
As it becomes increasingly clear that the United States is suffering from a jobless recovery, Democrats in Congress continue to push for a second stimulus package with a focus on job creation. This opportunity could mean billions more in spending on transportation — but what modes will benefit?
The American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials — a lobbying group for states and municipalities looking for more transport dollars — this week sent Congress a list of ready-to-go projects assembled by its members. The document promoted a total of $70 billion in expenditures that could be spent over the next year, with $47 billion for highways and $10 billion for transit, with the rest proposed for intercity rail, port, aviation, and intermodal facilities. If Congress spent as the AASHTO suggests, Washington’s investment in ground transportation would be heavily biased towards roads — far more so than was the last transportation bill, the stimulus, or Congressman James Oberstar’s (D-MN) proposed next transportation bill — as the chart below demonstrates.
|Transit Could Fare Poorly in the Upcoming Jobs Stimulus|
|Highway Allocations||Transit Allocations||Transit % of Ground Transport Allocations*|
|SAFETEA-LU Transportation Bill (2005-’09)
||$193 b||$53 b||22%|
||$27 b||$8.4 b||24%|
|Oberstar’s Proposed Transportation Bill (’10-’16)
||$301 b||$99 b||25%|
|AASHTO’s Proposed Jobs Stimulus (’10)
||$47 b||$10 b||18%|
|AASHTO + APTA Jobs Stimulus (’10)
||$47 b||$15 b||24%|
* Does not include intercity rail.
Of course, the American Public Transportation Association argues that there is at least $15 billion worth of transit construction ready for a start over the next year — implying that it would be quite possible for the government to bring spending levels up to those that have become standard over the past decade. At this point in the game, however, it looks like any transportation stimulus will reinforce the status quo, meaning a relative dearth of spending on public transportation.
There are several reasons why the government is likely to be unable to pull out of its highway-focused expenditures. One, an infrastructure package designed to be spent as rapidly as possible will prioritize projects that are ready for construction. This means that state agencies, which have thousands of roads ready to be built, will choose to invest in them rather than public transportation investments. Because of the difficulty of getting federal aid for transit capital projects, there are relatively few available for immediate construction, making it difficult to envision using them to create jobs now.
Greater investment in the short-term could be made by covering transit operating costs, but that idea too has its difficulties: It would likely result in municipalities — certainly cash-strapped and desperate to find ways to pay for all of their necessary services — cutting down on their own spending for the cause. If the federal government could somehow ensure that any operations spending paid for by Washington would go to new services, this issue could be mediated, but it’s hard to see how that guarantee could be made.
A more structural problem, making the bias towards highways a semi-permanent factor in this debate, is that American transportation policy is defined by something akin to a cease-fire between highway and transit proponents. Those in favor of increased public transportation expenditures are generally from dense urban areas and make up only a minority of Congressional representation; on the other hand, those who want more roads spending — representing about half of the legislature — need help from their transit-friendly peers in order to pass legislation. As a result, industry groups like AASHTO campaign pretty successfully for spending that angles towards roads at a one-to-four ratio. This, in turn, means that investment in transit capital projects is not expanded as a percentage of total expenditures and that envisioning a less roads-dependent society for the long-run is hard to do.
For transit proponents, working to raise that ratio to one-to-three is the immediate task for the jobs bill; the APTA and municipalities should push for as much public transportation spending as possible within the context of few shovel-ready projects. But moving past the lock the roads lobby has on most transportation expenditures will be difficult or even inconceivable for years to come.