Congress Considers New Jobs Package, and Highways Look Like the Big Winners

» 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%
Stimulus (’09)
$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.

8 Comments | Leave a Reply »
  • Ari

    I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again: any project can be shovel ready. How do we know? When a bridge fell down in Minneapolis, there were no plan to build a new one. Within a few weeks, the bridge was well in to design build, and 13 months (and $250m later) the new bridge was built. This was over a navigable waterway administered by the Army Corps, so it’s not like it was a very easy project. And it was built ahead of schedule and under budget.

    Why various other projects can’t be expedited to this degree without a major infrastructure failure is beyond me. The 35W bridge shows that nearly any project can be started within a year of conception. Which would be good for the economy, and good for the country.

  • AllanVA

    Ari, Your sentiment is echoed by millions of people. The whole planning process wastes more time with NIMBY’s and community groups with one or two rotten apples that manage to delay the benefits a project can have on hundreds and even thousands of people a day. we need to seriously rewrite the NEPA and other requirements that limits comment time and streamline the justice system so frivolous lawsuits don’t drag out for years.

    It can be done, but the political will in this country to make real, tough decisions is pathetically lacking – from local government all the way to the top.

    Frustrating but true. The only time things move quickly is after a disaster.

  • Of course, for an actual jobs bill, spending on transit operations trumps both transit infrastructure and roadworks for jobs creation …

    … and rgere is also more to fight for than ratios – fighting for all road spending in a jobs bill to be on road repair first until a state has caught up with its full backlog of road and support infrastructure requiring repair would be popular with the electorate, while allowing transit to increase its share of corridor miles even at a 4:1 share of spending.

  • Adam

    Right on Bruce. This is also a more worthy lobbying framework (fix the roads first) because it slows down new highway construction which furthers our dependence on car culture, non-liveable communities, habitat destruction, etc.

  • Chris H

    Replacing a transportation facility largely if not entirely within an existing ROW without having to worry about phased construction makes a big difference. Having the entire funding for the project dedicated (through an earmark) from start to finish available immediately helps too, not to mention up to $27 million in incentives for early completion.

  • DBX

    And you know what else? A lot of these highways are probably new-builds to nowhere, rather than replacing and/or upgrading life-expired structures. That is how state politics work, after all — rural business interests who know little about economic regeneration nonetheless outwitting, out-organizing and usually outvoting everyone else at the political trough. This kind of thing will go on until the feds start issuing transit grants directly to transit agencies, cities and counties and bypassing state departments of transportation.

    The consequence is waste and destruction on a grand scale, while older, essential, core infrastructure continues to crumble. In Illinois, you’ll likely see the Freeport-Galena freeway in US20 even though that road currently carries only 5,000 vehicles a day except in the one congested spot (through downtown Galena itself, about 12,000 vehicles a day, a good many of them tourists for whom Galena is the destination, not the speedbump). And you may also see Denny Hastert’s Prairie Parkway (aka “Prairie Porkway”) opening up new territory for sprawl.

    But the life-expired structure that is North Lake Shore Drive in Chicago is still not in the state’s five year plan. North LSD consists of, from Chestnut Street to Irving Park Road, worn-out 1991 overlay on top of 1933 concrete. It is pockmarked with frost-heaves and potholes. From Irving Park to Foster, the 1937 concrete was finally overlaid a year ago, as some miracle workers from the city working on a shoestring dug up all the shattered expansion joints, filled them up, and then overlaid the whole works and actually produced something that looks like it could actually last a while — but as they warned us at the time, this is a five year bandaid. And from Foster to the end, you’ve got approximately 1999 overlay on top of 1954 concrete that I can tell you, having used the entire drive before all the patching, was of far poorer quality than the 1930s stuff.

    So let’s review that again. In today’s Washington and state DOT priority list, a crumbling 75 year old urban expressway that depends on most of its original structures is not considered due for reconstruction. But a decent two-lane highway in bucolic northwestern Illinois that carries 1/30th of Lake Shore Drive’s traffic is advancing towards being completely replaced by an all-new billion dollar interstate that will ruin the countryside most of the existing traffic is going to see as tourists.

    And that’s before we even start debating rail.

  • Ocean Railroader

    In the last two years hunderds of highway projects that would smash open bottle necks have been dropped off of the project list at Vdot do to a bad funding short fall. The Fed does need to step in at least help pay for new construction to at least get rid of the back log of new projects in general that need to be built. It is very expessive to build a new project then to have a project that was already built years ago and only needs repairs. Such as the Hampton Roads Bridge Tunnel is only four lanes wide and it carries about eight to ten lanes of traffic though it and there are active plans to extend the Norfolk light rail though the new widened tunnel to which right now a 5 billon dollar unfuned bottle neck were people waste millons of dollars in gas a week waiting to go though the old 1950’s tunnel.

  • One of the big problems with highway funding is that states are supposed to fund the bulk of maintenance themselves (excl. roads on federal land). Congress is prepared to fund the lion’s share of new construction, but it doesn’t want to get stuck with the recurring cost of fixing potholes and inspecting bridges.

    State politicians are looking to “bring home the bacon” by leveraging scarce state dollars.That inherently favors new or replacement structures over maintaining existing assets, to the extent states can get away with it. Usually, politicians don’t much care if the new road is actually the best possible investment for taxpayers. What matters to them is prestige (your name on this highway), votes (via the patronage that comes with holding the public purse strings) and campaign contributions from construction companies.

    The politics of transit would work the same way if enough middle class voters were interested in riding transit. More often than not, they still want “someone else” to use it so there’s more room on the road for them and their cars. The cultural shift to low-carbon transportation is happening very slowly, if at all. Families may be buying more fuel efficient cars but few volunteer to own fewer of them because the alternatives are insufficiently developed. To some extent, it’s a chicken and egg problem. The willingness to support transit expansion and upgrades is only high where population density is also high (e.g. NYC) or urban planning is transit oriented (e.g. Portland) to create pockets of density near stops.

    Even with a concerted push from the top plus grassroots efforts plus high oil prices plus awareness of climate change, it’s still going to take some time to overcome the traditional state DOT bias in favor of roads. Senior bureaucrats want to keep doing what they know how to do, they don’t want to risk their careers on implementing systems they’re unfamiliar with.

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