» The next few years are likely to be difficult for advocates of public transportation because of increased hostility to government investment.
1987, 1991, 1995, 1998, and 2005 share a significant feature: In each of those years, members of Congress were able to come together to pass a multi-year bill that codified how the U.S. government was to collect revenues for and allocate expenditures on transportation. Not coincidentally, in each of those years, one political party controlled both the House and Senate.
In the 112th Congress, set to enter office in just one month, Democrats will run the Senate and Republicans the House. This split control will make passing any legislation difficult. Unlike in those aforementioned years, there is little chance that this group of legislators will be able to pass a multi-year transportation bill either in 2011 or 2012.
These circumstances, combined with increasingly strident conservative rhetoric about the need to reduce government expenditures, may fundamentally challenge the advances the Obama Administration and the Democratic Congress have been able to make over the past two years in expanding the nation’s intercity rail network, promoting a vision for livable communities, and reinforcing funding for urban transit. Continuing those efforts would require identifying sources of increased revenue and a steadfast commitment to reducing the role of the automobile in American society.
But there is little support for increased taxes from any side of the political table and there is a fundamental aversion from the mainstream Republican Party to the investments that have defined the government’s recent transportation strategy. Meanwhile, declining power of the purse resulting from a fuel tax last increased in 1993 means that the existing situation is unacceptable, at least if there is any sense that something must be done to expand investment in transportation infrastructure. Gridlock — and myopic thinking about how to improve mobility in the United States — will ensue.
The opening shot in this game was fired this fall by New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, whose decision to cancel the ARC tunnel connecting his state to New York City was framed in the rhetoric of fiscal conservatism, his fear of cost overruns evidently outweighing the massive economic gains his constituency would have received thanks to improved connections to Manhattan. Now Mr. Christie is suing the federal government to prevent it from taking back the $271 million it granted to the state for the project, despite the fact that the New Starts grant agreement New Jersey signed with the Federal Transit Administration to receive funding clearly states that entities that fail to complete the projects for which they have received federal aid must return the grant in full to Washington.*
Governor Christie, of course, is not alone in his approach: His colleagues in Wisconsin and Ohio, newly elected Republicans soon to enter gubernatorial offices, have promised to shut down their local federally funded intercity rail corridors that they fear will overwhelm them with future operating expenses. Of course, those complaints are patently absurd when put in context of each state’s respective overall transportation budget. Wisconsin, for instance, spends more than a billion dollars on roadway construction annually and would have been asked to contribute a mere $7.5 million to train operations. Is such a small contribution really such a huge price to pay for a transportation alternative?
Members of Congress have been all too ready to support these efforts to close the book on the nation’s nascent intercity rail program before it can begin. A Republican Congressman introduced a bill this week that would rescind stimulus funds not yet obligated, a move that would pull $6.3 billion out of state hands, most of it designated for passenger rail.
Common across this discussion is the claim that investing in transportation infrastructure can be wasteful — this is an argument that has been made successfully since Alaska’s “bridge to nowhere” achieved national notoriety during the 2008 presidential campaign. And indeed, there are plenty of examples of spending on projects that are less than economically beneficial. Yet it has become clear that the preponderance of criticism is being heaped on infrastructure that is designated for non-automobile transportation, in spite of the fact that the Alaskan bridge was, after all, for cars.
Mr. Christie is considering allocating to road improvement $1.25 billion once supposed to help to pay for the ARC tunnel. Outgoing Ohio Senator George Voinovich is hoping to change the law before he leaves to allow his state to transfer to highway construction funds once designated for the Cincinnati-Cleveland intercity rail line. The expected new speaker of the House, Ohio Congressman John Boehner, simply doesn’t think the federal government should be getting involved with funding bike and pedestrian improvement projects, which are at the heart of the Obama Administration’s livable cities goals. Cutbacks to the overall federal transportation budget, at least according to preliminary reports on GOP efforts, are likely to hit transit far harder than highways.
Some have suggested that this is acceptable policy, that the Obama Administration was failing to address the needs and desires of the U.S. population in its focus on developing new and better modes of transportation. I would suggest that the alternative is disastrous: More sprawl, more environmental devastation, more repetitive, identity-less cities.
Thus the issue here is not so much fiscal sanity as it is remarkably differing visions about how Americans should get around in the future. Whereas the current Congress and the White House have staked out relatively progressive policies in terms of providing adequate and equal funding to non-automobile modes of transportation, the incoming House leadership appears poised to take advantage of fears about increases in the federal budget deficit to reduce spending on everything but roads.
There is, as always, an alternative. The bipartisan — though ideologically more right-wing than centrist — National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility suggested in its plan for reducing the nation’s debt a 15¢ per gallon increase in the fuel tax, though it said little about how exactly those new revenues would be utilized. A more progressive group called Our Fiscal Security released a far more equitable program for reducing the U.S. deficit that would introduce a carbon tax (or cap and trade) and expand the motor fuels tax by 25¢ or more per gallon. These revenues, the group notes, could go towards expanded public transportation for the purposes of “reduc[ing] our dependency on fuel and increas[ing] productivity by reducing the amount of time people sit in traffic.” Neither group’s ambitions, however, appears to be supported by enough members of Congress to be taken completely seriously.
This adds up to a thoroughly inconvenient situation for the future of U.S. transportation. Despite a well-documented need for more spending, the newly Republican House is unlikely to authorize any new revenue source for the purpose. Based on recent decisions by party members at the state and national level, that will mean a renewed emphasis on roadway projects and less proposed funding for transit. How will the GOP delegation be able to compromise with the Democratic Senate? Any effort to make 2011 replicate the achievements of past years in which transportation bills were passed seems bound to fail.
* See U.S. Code Title 49, Section 5309 (G)(3)(B): “If an applicant does not carry out the project for reasons within the control of the applicant, the applicant shall repay all Government payments made under the work agreement plus reasonable interest and penalty charges the Secretary establishes in the agreement.”