» Why is the American Public Transportation Association lobbying against helpful legislation? Blame a culture of collaboration between highway and transit interests.
Here’s one inconvenient truth holding in line the status quo of automobile dependency in the United States: the nation’s primary proponent of transit, the American Public Transportation Association (APTA), stands on virtually every issue hand-in-hand with the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO), the nation’s main advocates of increased highway spending.
For both organizations, cooperation on transportation legislation has meant steady support for such bills in Congress over the years under both Democratic and Republican leadership. Put simply, the unstated alliance between the two makes compromise possible between urban, suburban, and rural legislators, who have vastly differing perspectives when it comes to what kinds of transportation to fund. Over the past year, throughout the debate on how to advance the reauthorization of the nation’s transportation funding system, APTA and AASHTO have shown themselves committed to retaining a structural funding split in favor of highways over other modes of travel, and they’ve stood steadily with a user fee-based transportation network, despite the fact that that reliance systematically enforces automobile dependency.
The organizations’ approach to the Senate’s proposed energy and climate legislation has been little different. Early in May, Senators John Kerry (D-MA) and Joe Lieberman (I-CT) introduced the “American Power Act,” which would collect funds from carbon emitters and distribute $6.25 billion for the purposes of aiding “clean” transportation; one third of funds would go respectively to merit-based grants from the DOT, local land use planning, and the highway trust fund.
In a joint statement in mid-May, APTA and AASHTO argued against the bill because about two-thirds of new revenues sourced from fuel consumption would be directed to non-transportation related investments, equivalent to heresy in their minds. According to the organizations, “This significantly undermines the user fee principle for financing federal transportation improvements that has served our nation and our economy well for more than 50 years.” The organizations argue that all of the bill’s revenues should be directed to the Highway Trust Fund, which basically means providing a hand-out to highway-obsessed state DOTs that will spend too much money on new roads construction while ignoring maintenance.
In a take-down of APTA’s policy objectives, Ya-Ting Liu of the Tri-State Transportation Campaign wrote yesterday of that organization’s “mystifying protest” of the Kerry/Lieberman legislation. Ms. Liu demonstrates that this bill has far more for transit than other legislative possibilities and that APTA’s commitment to maintaining support for the Highway Trust Fund runs in opposition to its own interests. But she put it well when she argues that “The industry groups’ position is essentially a call to prevent all change in how transportation projects are funded.”
Sean Barry chimes in for Transportation for America, pointing out that while there may be insufficient funding for transportation in this bill, its passage is independent from that of the far more relevant transportation reauthorization bill. Mr. Barry writes correctly that “Kerry-Lieberman is the first new source of revenue for transportation in many, many years and more than has ever been allocated in one bill,” other than in transportation-specific legislation.
Let it be clear: the “American Power Act” is a pretty flawed instrument: it fails to enforce true reductions in carbon emissions and it would provide large subsidies to the power industry. Moreover, its chance of passage has been delayed because of almost unanimous Republican opposition to any and all legislation proposed by the ruling Democrats.
But at least it makes an attempt at addressing climate change issues, more than can be said of almost every piece of legislation ever passed by the U.S. Congress. The bill recognizes the value of “clean” transportation; APTA should see that as a friendly message, rather than something to fight against because it could push the group into unfamiliar territory.
Yet the current transportation funding mechanisms are largely popular in Washington; despite the clear benefits of increasing contributions from the general fund, virtually everyone — from Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood on down — is convinced that because the country has always relied on user fees (charging highway drivers) to pay for transportation, it should continue to do so. But unless governments begin charging automobile users for the negative environmental results of their travel decisions, a user fee approach will result in a continued lack of adequate funds for alternative transportation projects because of a lack of political support for a reallocation of those dollars to transit, which “doesn’t pay for itself.” APTA’s leaders must confront this fact.
Sadly, the political reality suggests that there’s little chance of that happening. Because of under-representation of urban areas in Congress (particularly in the Senate), forces advocating public transportation will always lose out to highway proponents in a one-on-one battle. Meanwhile, especially under relatively transit-friendly Democratic control, the roads lobby cannot pretend to ignore the needs of transit users. Thus the inescapable and poisonous relationship between APTA and AASHTO.
I’d like to end this post with a thanks to Elana Schor, who has spent the last year writing day-in, day-out on transportation policy over at Streetsblog Capitol Hill; she is moving on to environmental reporting at Greenwire. Elana has made transportation reporting an art, and I’ll miss her very significant contribution to the field.
Image above: Chicago’s Red Line El running along Dan Ryan Expressway, from Flickr user Urban Woodswalker