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Whose Turn to Lead on U.S. Transport Planning?

» Every level of government has a role to play in the process, but expecting the federal government to take the initiative is unrealistic.

One of the negative aspects of the U.S. federal system is the perpetual confrontation between various governmental actors about their respective roles in the planning system. While municipalities make the majority of decisions about land use, transit districts employ their powers to route new bus and rail lines, states make new highway investments, and the federal government controls a huge segment of funding allocations, these functions are continuously put under threat by one another depending on fiscal and political circumstances, leading to disagreements and disarray in the pursuit of a more effectively planned urban environment.

As I discussed yesterday, one of the primary consequences of this fight between actors — even those within specific governmental agencies — is bad decision-making about how to invest in new transportation corridors.

I suggested earlier this week that states, holding the theoretically most important position in the U.S. governmental structure, should take further responsibility in the financing and distribution of funds for transportation. An increasing reliance on the state level to prioritize new transit and roads investments, however, presents a number of potential downsides: One, state departments of transportation are too oriented towards providing highway infrastructure over all else; and two, state boundaries don’t always line up with actual travel needs — New York, Philadelphia, and Washington’s respective tri-state metropolitan regions, for example, make planning in each a mess of bureaucracy and diverging political goals.

Jarrett Walker at Human Transit suggests that the latter problem should provoke new thinking about the role of the federal government in the planning process. Notably, he suggests, Perhaps it would be easier to build multi-modal planning capacity inside the US Department of Transportation, by building stronger links across the Federal Highway, Railroad, and Transit Administrations and using Federal funding leverage to impose multi-modal planning discipline.” Doing so, I assume, would increase the role of federally mandated metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs), which are already supposed to coordinate transportation investments for regions as a whole, but which are too often bogged down by state-level political calculations.

This view has a number of admirers among people such as Former Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels, who suggested earlier this year that one solution to the nation’s problems would be to “Abolish the states!” Transportation for America, an advocacy group, suggested in its blueprint for national transportation reform that the federal government should attempt to simply bypass the state level when allocating some funds and hand them over to the MPOs, which theoretically are more interested in multi-modal investments than car-obsessed states.

It’s true that an emphasis on metropolitan regions as the primary level through which to route transportation expenditures would make sense in the abstract; I’ve suggested in the past that France’s system, in which each of its 22 régions is given virtually complete control over transportation, is a functional precedent.

But there are two insurmountable problems that stand in the way of actually empowering American MPOs to do good work: First, they are not political in nature and therefore are frequently not submitted to even basic principals of democracy; and second, even if the federal government changed its financing system radically, states would still retain power over the large majority of transportation funds.

Don’t get me wrong — there’s nothing wrong about increasing multi-modal thinking at the U.S. Department of Transportation; the question is simply how much influence such a change in mentality will have over decisions relating to how transportation infrastructure is built. The biggest technical problem is simply that states currently collect the majority of revenues that later go to transportation; to expect that they’d be willing to abandon their interest in that money or allow the federal government and its subsidiaries at MPOs to take control of the funds is completely unrealistic.

Meanwhile, I am troubled by any argument that pushes the “transportation-as-an-apolitical-issue” discourse founded on the idea that everyone should be able to agree about what kinds of future transportation we want. A diversion of decision-making about investments to a non-elected and semi-autonomous group like an MPO raises a number of concerns about the level of democratic involvement we’re interested in promoting in our public sector.

We cannot rely on “experts” to select the appropriate means of transportation for specific areas when the whole point of the democratic process — whether official through elections or unofficial through protest or other means — is to allow the citizenry to make its opinion known. That kind of thinking has allowed many independent, unelected authorities to either be shielded from the consequences of their choices or shield politicians from their own responsibilities.

Voters should have the right to vote out decision-makers with whom they disagree, even on issues like transport.

Thus, not only is the dismissal of the state role in the U.S. process an unrealistic fantasy predicated on an underestimation of the power states already hold, but it symbolizes a willingness to step aside from engaging in democratic arguments about the appropriate means for serving the population with improved transportation.

Moreover, there are plenty of ways in which states can endeavor to improve both the manner in which they finance transportation and the way in which they release funds. State borders that don’t coincide with metropolitan ones do present difficulties, but they’re not overwhelming. The Washington Metro could not have been built without the explicit cooperation between the District of Columbia, Maryland, and Virginia; nor could the Bay Area’s BART system have come to fruition without agreements being made between sometimes hostile counties. In other words, there will always be borders to overcome — they shouldn’t define our entire approach to transportation.

Nor should we fall into the trap of assuming that states will always be only interested in their rural and suburban constituencies; the fact that the discourse about how to improve transportation has taken place almost entirely at the national level is an illustration not of the weakness of states but rather a demonstration of a lack of attention for their individual needs by people pushing change.

Over the past week, I have repeatedly hammered home the significance of the states in determining transportation policy both now and into the future because I am convinced that advocates of alternative transportation aren’t making a strong enough case for attempting to reform the way state governments work. Just because many of them are failing to incorporate ideas about how to create more livable communities today does not in any way preclude them from doing so tomorrow.

Image above: Detroit’s abandoned Michigan Central Station, by Yonah Freemark

16 replies on “Whose Turn to Lead on U.S. Transport Planning?”

“Nor should we fall into the trap of assuming that states will always be only interested in their rural and suburban constituencies…”

I agree with you, but I think that so long as states ARE concerned with their rural constituents, there should be more of an effort to bring decent transit to the boonies as well. The only reason that so many rural residents are opposed to transit is that there isn’t any in particular to use–more regional rail (see: any European country and many Asian ones) would fix this problem.

Europe has to deal with the same planning problems for medium-distance infrastructure, except that instead of states vying for dollars from a federal government, they have sovereign nations that have to raise most of the necessary funds by themselves.

Language barriers aside, each country has its own historical culture of planning local and regional projects. Even when there is violent agreement on which cross-border projects are needed, how planners need to conduct the environmental reviews and how to fund the whole she-bang, there are still technological and operational hurdles to overcome – especially in the railway sector.

And yet, somehow, the EU has managed to herd all these cats and got them to buy into a planning framework called TEN-T for 30 “priority axes” that will create new opportunity for efficient mobility between member states, especially for goods. The timescale for implementing the whole program is a generation, but that doesn’t seem to faze anyone.

Member states are taking their cues from the effort in enlightened self-interest, the EU bureaucracy’s job here is mostly to co-ordinate existing national plans such that they join up at the borders. This effort has allowed national planners – and politicians – to re-assess priorities and adjust routes, phasing etc. That said, many controversial big-ticket projects that had long been no more than a gleam in anyone’s eye only make sense in the wider European context.

Examples include five base tunnels through the Alps (two of them in Switzerland, which isn’t even an EU member), the Oresund and Fehmarn Belt bridges in Denmark, the Lainzer tunnel in Austria, new run-through central stations in Berlin, Stuttgart and Vienna etc.

Nothing comparable to TEN-T has happened in the US since the Interstate highway program. You can’t “perfect our union” with interminable land wars in Asia. You need modern civilian infrastructure to accomplish the uniting – never mind perfection. Smart grid, PTC signaling on freight rail lines, high speed rail, water management, disaster preparedness etc.

It’s fine for the federal government to fund states to allocate, as long as the money is spent on achieving outcomes for health, safety, and general welfare, instead of miles of road paved this year. State DOT’s respond to funding criteria; the “road bias” will not last long if the funding formula doesn’t reward that.
However, it is even better for each locality to set its vision, adopt its comprehensive plan, and then let the experts provide the appropriate infrastructure such as water, electriticy, and transportation. (with state and federal funding available based on performance) The community might have strategic direction, such as we see now on renewable energy, but the community doesn’t tell the electric company how to get power to each house, nor the water company how to run pipes, and transportation is really just another utility. It is not undemocratic to expect experts to come up with appropriate means for the community to reach its goals.

If the core of your argument is (a) MPOs aren’t elected and (b) states already control most of the funding, my response is (a) one of the most effective MPOs in the country, Portland’s Metro, IS elected, and elected in highly contested elections that help make the agency visible and encourage voters to think about what it does, and (b) obviously, any transition of authority from states to Fed+MPO would happen gradually and over lots of resistance.

You don’t engage the core of the argument in my post, which is simply that if you want efficient government, you’ve got to assign the job to a level of government that has the right boundaries to do the job. You may have to have the experience of being a consultant or a bureaucrat, trying to drive these processes, to understand how much energy is wasted trying to co-ordinate across boundaries that were drawn before anyone new where the cities would be. (Frankly, these include some county boundaries, especially in California, as well as state boundaries.)

So for now I’ll stand by what I said here:

Respectfully, Jarrett

Portland’s Metro (as well as the Twin Cities’ Metro Council, for example) serves as a rare exception to what to me at least is a highly troubling trend of filling an MPO body with appointed positions, thereby preventing them from acting as fully democratic organisms. Portland, however, as you rightly put it, does have an elected MPO and I should have noted that.

Other than that, the reason I didn’t address your argument was that I agree with it for the most part! I do think (as I suggested in terms of France) that there are advantages to promoting decision-making at the metropolitan level. The point of this post — and indeed the point of what has unintentionally become a steady stream of posts this week — is to frame the goal of improved transportation funding and allocation within the existing conditions: Namely state power.

Thus, my goal here is not to suggest that we shouldn’t think of ways to transfer more power to the feds and their metro-area partners, but rather simply to promote more thinking about how to engage existing our existing, and too frequently misunderstood, conditions.

FYI, Yonah, the Metropolitan Council positions are appointed by the Minnesota Governor. That said, the Met Council is fairly effective considering it has to coordinate with 7 counties, 143 municipalities, 43 townships, and 1 unorganized area.


Overall, a well thought out piece and as usual, a pleasure to read.

I think that a piece of the transport puzzle that is missing is a conscious effort at an overall national transportation strategy on the part of the Federal government. As I was reading the piece, it struck me several times that we are only really talking about surface transportation and a competition among cars, rail and transit.

At a higher level, there needs to be a policy put into place, appropriately at the Federal level, to prioritize resource expenditure among air, rail and road for passenger travel. Each of these three modes is treated, largely, as an independent basis, rather than in an integrated fashion as you suggest in the article would be the way to go between road, rail and transit. As long as we in the United States refuse to make the three complimentary to each other and continue to make them compete for resources and attention, it will be difficult to change the priorities currently assigned.

How would they be prioritized? Connect the airports with rail connections and facilitate the integration of rail and air travel. Air travel for the long hauls, rail for the shorter hauls currently run by small regional airlines. It will reduce air traffic, delays and carbon emissions by leveraging rail for the trips that rail does the best. Focus transit on short, local transport where density will favor those modes and support cars in the short to medium distances. Essentially establishing “swim lanes” for each mode and tying Federal funding to supporting criteria could be the motivator. Scoring projects on how well they interconnect (essentially Metcalf’s law for transportation) could be part of the funding formula.

The States still play a large roll in the planning process, but by establishing a bigger picture strategy for the Feds, it would sharpen the justification criteria for the states and create more transparency into the funding process at the Federal level.

A federal government strategy should stay missing. It simply won’t work.

If you live in an economically productive region, you’re going to lose out because the national government gives disproportionate power to economically inert areas.

The federal government is just going to stifle the urban interests. These areas have to find ways of subverting the federal process and making it work.

I would say the absence of a Federal strategy in the presence of resources and processes, is creating a de facto Federal strategy that is heading in no particular direction and is just riding the waves of political preference.

One of the points of having a Federal government is to be able to get resources to areas that have economic potential but which lack the resources themselves to develop in the context of national priorities and needs.

It’s a great post, Yonah. My thoughts on who should lead are that it should be a combination of metro areas and the feds, for the opposite reason Wad argues against it. In France, the regions do most regional rail planning. As a result, poor regions (nearly the entire country, minus Ile-de-France, Rhone-Alpes, and PACA) have no money for infrastructure. This reinforces their poverty and exclusion, which then forces the rich areas to spend more money on subsidizing them.

However, just having the feds do everything doesn’t work. It leads to useless projects such as I-80 and the Joetsu Shinkansen. A better role for the feds is to provide basic regulatory infrastructure, including:

1. National standards for train control and modern rolling stock,

2. A ban on beggar-thy-neighbor strategies for attracting rolling stock factories,

3. Schedule and fare coordination, including mass purchase of technologies such as smartcards,

4. Planning coordination, including advice for optimal planning at under $500/billable hour.

It would be nice if the feds also gave some money, but the problem is that the competitive grants are arbitrary, and more useful processes (equal per-capita funding, equal per-rider funding, etc.) require a national debate about how and how much to fund public transportation, which nobody currently wants to have on the grounds that it could end either way.

I came up with an idea addressing this issue some time ago but I’ve never really thought too in depth about it so it’s kind of a rough draft idea. I’m just blurting this out here so please bare with me. For the sake of argument, we’re going to assume no political obstructions.

The rough idea was to have dozens of federal MPO’s, each of which would be assigned to their own respective region. The areas over which an individual MPO would have jurisdiction is dictated by urban development patterns and irrespective of state, county, or city boundaries. These federal MPO’s have absolute jurisdiction over their regions (so no state DOTs or local agencies involved). Each of these MPO’s is autonomous from the federal government as far as planning goes and should be responsive to concerned state and local governments. In the end, the federal government’s only real role is the allocation of funds to each of these federal MPO districts.

Obviously, there’s a lot of obstacles to such a system but it’s just a rough idea.

Your idea is good as a starter, but it will involve a lot of EU-style democratic deficit if the MPO boards are appointed. Elected MPOs are best, but the problem is that there are too many local government initiatives that would work better on the MPO level than on the state level: taxes (so no Portland/Vancouver-style tax gaming), labor law, education expenditure, housing, transportation. You might as well just redraw state boundaries; it has about the same effectiveness as policy, and about the same chance of happening.

(Note that the German and Swiss Verkersverbund is not really an MPO. It’s a group of different federal, state, local, and private agencies that agree to coordinate schedules, fares, and branding.)

Verkehrsverbund isn’t “a group of … that agree …” either. It’s one central agency set up by regional government(s) that contracts actual service with the operators. The kind of voluntary structure you described does exist, too, but I didn’t see any that would span significant area.

About a Verkehrsverbund: Such voluntary agreements may exist, but they are at best the starting point for a Verkehrsverbund.

The ZVV (IMHO one of the most successful Verkehrsverbünde) is essentially an agency of the Canton of Zürich (which would be a State in USAn understanding).

It is the ZVV owning the lines.

It is the ZVV which sets the schedules, although there is a pretty elaborate system for the individual people to put up requests for new services and/or modifications (once a year, the schedules for the following year are published, and anyone can make suggestions to their hometown, which will or will not support them. If the hometown supports it, the request will be discussed at a “scheduling conference”, and the ZVV may or may not accept and implement it. This system does work, and it is possible for an individual to have changes done; it may take years, but it is possible (personal experience: about 12 years after my first request for an optimization of the routing of the bus line serving my hometown, in order to get the maximum of connection at the train station, and the densest possible schedule using one single vehicle in the evening and on Sundays, it got implemented, and now, people like it… patience and finding the correct arguments for gaining the hometown’s support were the key).

The ZVV also gets all the farebox income accounted, and together with the subsidies, they distribute it to the contracted operators (which are essentially the original operators of the pre-ZVV lines).

In most cases, this is what a Verkehrsverbund does, it relieves the operators from their operationg freedom, but also relieves them from the operational risks.

As mentioned, the states will continue to retain much of the power. State DOTs need to be revamped so that the focus on roads is lessened.

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