» 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