» When cities, states, and even regions consider how to improve transportation connections, they should be forced to evaluate a whole range of modes.
If, as I have suggested over the past few days, states are to take an increasingly important role in the transportation funding process, they must similarly become more implicated in the planning program for all modes, not just highways, typically their reserved domain. Though there are some exceptions, like New Jersey and Connecticut, most states currently assign decision-making about public transit to separate local or regional authorities, which receive direct funding from the federal government.
This separation of powers produces a system that perpetuates spending on individual modes rather than the mobility network as a whole; it’s a compromise between automobile and transit interests that frequently results in waste and overspending on certain corridors and underinvestment in others. With intercity rail regaining prominence and states acting in the primary role, though, it is time for the middle level of the American federal system to take a greater interest in ensuring that the right modes are selected and funded for each corridor — at the municipal, metropolitan, state, and regional scales.
The current system — in which state departments of transportation advocate highway capacity expansion while local transit interests push bus and rail improvements — is extremely problematic, because its most common result is an all-in-one approach in which all modes get funded on major corridors, even when expansion of only one mode may be necessary.
The clearest example of how this works is in new urban freeway projects. In Denver’s T-Rex program, the highway department improved service on Interstate 25 and 225 by both adding two to four lanes to the existing highway and implementing light rail service. Why were both necessary? “We weren’t going to spend over a billion dollars on this project without involving more highway capacity. It couldn’t be a predominantly transit project,” said about the project Bill Jones, then the Federal Highway Administration’s Colorado Division administrator. “This was the turning point when we realized together that the transit part of the project couldn’t be built without the highway part.”
It was a political solution, not a technical one. Much as, for instance, Los Angeles built the Green Line light rail corridor as part of the construction of the Century Freeway. Or, as the new Columbia River Crossing between Portland, Oregon and Vancouver, Washington will incorporate both several more automobile lanes than the existing bridge and a light rail extension.
But states should be forced to be more clear about their goals for investment in each corridor, and they should be more willing to pick non-automobile options when they’re choosing to invest in capacity enhancements to existing roads. As Peter Rogoff, head of the Federal Transit Administation, said at an American Public Transportation Association conference Monday in Vancouver, “We’re all trying to accomplish the same goals here. We’re all trying to achieve the same efficient, decongested transportation network.” In other words, there are a whole variety of modes that can be implemented to serve similar purposes.
This applies at a number of different scales. State-owned urban roadways — more common in some states, such as my own North Carolina, than others — should be approached from a multi-modal perspective. If they’re too much traffic, the solution cannot always be an increase in the width of roads, especially in sensitive inner-city areas. It would be helpful if DOTs could take a predefined amount of money and then allocate it to the appropriate project. If roads expansion serves that purpose, then so be it; on the other hand, if better bus service presents itself as a more acceptable option, than state DOTs should be able to allocate those capital funds to local transit agencies to institute improved operations over a long time period. Yet no stable system currently exists to promote such transfers of money.
Similarly, on intercity corridors, it would be helpful if states could actually compare the costs of highway expansion with that of instituting convenient, frequent intercity rail — rare throughout most of the country. There are a number of corridors where the share of traffic that could be diverted to transit from automobiles is significantly high as to warrant a de-emphasis from road construction. Unfortunately, such a reallocation would be very difficult to promote in most cases because there is rarely cooperation between state highways and rail departments, and each usually sees itself as serving its own compartmentalized market, when in fact they’re competing for users.
This would, of course, require significant changes in the way state DOTs work. For one, they’re too often constrained by their own workforces, which are heavily slanted towards highway engineers. This means that these agencies typically act as if road investments are the only “realistic” way to go about solving transportation dilemmas, even though their peer transit agencies would suggest just the opposite. States must make an effort to encourage consideration of a variety of transportation modes when evaluating each project.
But the bigger problem still is that the majority of projects undertaken by state DOTs — new interchanges, repaving, etc — are relatively small, making investments in other options impossible to consider. These small projects add up into a major program of roads repair and expansion that could be replaced by more sustainable options if there were political will to do so. Thus states must promote master planning for each corridor, considering travel needs across a variety of modes. By developing concrete ideas about how both inner-city and intercity corridors should look in twenty or fifty years, states can be better prepared to implement the best solution for each place.
Image above: Planes, Trains, and Automobiles, from Flickr user Little Miss Cupcake Paris