» Advances on livability and intercity rail were overshadowed by the inability of the Congress to legislate multi-year transportation funding. Republican control of the House beginning in January changes the equation significantly.
The 2008 elections brought the full reigns of the executive and legislative branches of the U.S. government under the control of the Democratic Party, power that enabled the passage of the stimulus, health care reform, and, this month, a huge package of tax cuts. Though transportation policy was clearly not the priority of either the Obama Administration or the Congress, the decision by voters last month to install a Republican Party-controlled House of Representatives is likely to alter the government’s approach on the issues quite significantly. Thus it is worth looking back to examine the record of federal government over the last two years.
The Obama Administration and the Democratic Congress have changed some aspects of federal policy significantly, advancing grant programs that reward cities for developing alternative transit systems and seriously promoting the national intercity rail project. A full-scale change in Washington’s approach to transportation, however, has yet to be accomplished.
The most significant lost cause has been, of course, the inability of the Congress to move forward on a multi-year transportation reauthorization bill. Though then-Chair of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure James Oberstar (D-MN) proposed a draft of such legislation in June 2009, his effort went mostly unnoticed on Capitol Hill. It was never brought to the attention of the full House of Representatives and the relevant Senate committees never bothered to consider it.
The biggest problem: Party control over Washington or not, the Democrats could not come to any sort of agreement about how to fund transportation, an increasing problem because gas tax revenues are falling relative to both inflation and the public need. President Obama refused to consider raising fuel fees in the midst of the recession and directed his press secretary to shoot down a promising alternative, the vehicle miles traveled fee. This meant repeated temporary extensions of the expired transportation legislation, SAFETEA-LU, paid for through general fund expenditures rather than the fuel tax. These problems have yet to be resolved, and are unlikely to change over the course of the next two years.
Mr. Oberstar’s proposal would have transformed thinking about national transportation spending: It proposed shifting spending to two reserves, one dedicated to maintaining the existing system and then other to ramping up new capacity. Significantly, it would have required some allocations to be distributed in a mode-neutral manner, meaning that in some corridors, a public transit project might be picked by a local agency as the best use of funds instead of a highway expansion. This would have represented a major advance over current affairs, since currently roads and transit funding are divvied up into separate pots. But the effort went nowhere.
Thus in terms of allocations towards highway programs, transit maintenance, and new rail projects, the Department of Transportation has changed little. Several major new transit capital projects have been approved to receive major New Start grants from Washington, including two light rail lines in Houston, two more in Denver, and the San Francisco Central Subway, among others. And funding on the nation’s biggest transportation projects under construction, including New York’s Second Avenue Subway and East Side Access, Dallas’ Green Line, and Seattle’s University Link, continued apace. (The decision by New Jersey Governor Chris Christie to cancel the ARC Tunnel was depressing for the public interest, but it reflected no failure on the part of Washington.)
Yet these projects would have probably been funded whether Democrats have swept into power or not. Other measures have been far more indicative of the changes that have taken place over the past two years.
The failure of the Democrats to move a transportation bill forward was partially resolved by the passage of the stimulus in early February 2009. That $800 billion bill provided a huge shot in the arm to transportation projects all over the country, giving $46.2 billion to highway, transit, and rail. Though highway expenditures continued to receive the majority of funds, their share of total spending was lower than in a typical year’s federal transportation allocations. Without these essential funds, thousands of transportation projects, underfunded by local and state agencies, would have come to a halt.
But the big news was the $8 billion the bill included for intercity rail, an allocation added personally by President Obama and far more than members of Congress had suggested in the course of their own negotiations. This infusion of funds, in addition to the $2.5 billion directed for such projects in fiscal year 2010, represented the largest-ever American public commitment to rail. Whether the program is ultimately refunded remains up in the air, especially because of the radical anti-rail stance of some Republican governors in states such as Ohio and Wisconsin. Nonetheless, this funding is enough to ensure the construction of the first segment of California’s high-speed line and finance major improvements to Amtrak corridors in Iowa, Michigan, North Carolina, and Washington. Florida’s fast train between Tampa and Orlando — to be the first such project in the country — is now fully financed and will be built, as long as new Governor Rick Scott (R) agrees to the program.
The stimulus put a (temporary) end to a highly egregious anti-transit rule that provided higher tax rebates to drivers than public transportation riders.
Finally, the stimulus provided to the Department of Transportation $1.5 billion in funding to distribute to projects at the discretion of the Secretary. These TIGER grants were offered to mobility programs that were not being funded under traditional means. When grantees were announced in February 2010, hundreds of millions of dollars were provided to freight rail improvement programs and upgrades to transportation terminals. In addition, streetcar projects in Dallas, Detroit, and Tucson received big endorsements, starting off a national streetcar boom.
The department used congressionally allocated funds to finance another $600 million in TIGER II grants unveiled in October 2010. These sponsored streetcar lines for Atlanta and Salt Lake City and several freight projects, among others. In addition, it provided funding for the demolition of a freeway in New Haven for the purposes of transforming it into an urban boulevard, arguably a first for U.S. transportation funding.
The Urban Circulator grants announced in December 2009 and awarded in July 2010 provided another $293 million in funds for bus improvements and streetcar construction. Though Fort Worth has apparently abandoned its planned streetcar, even after receiving a $25 million commitment from Washington, Cincinnati, Charlotte, and St. Louis — each of which also benefited from major allocations — are moving ahead. Several other cities, including Chicago, New York, and Stamford, got funding for downtown busways. Boston received $3 million for the nation’s first federally funded bike sharing program. Together, the Urban Circulator, TIGER, and TIGER II grant programs represent the government’s largest-ever contribution to small-scale transit projects, and the nation’s first major public commitment to the construction of streetcar lines.
Correspondingly, for the first time, the Department of Transportation has taken the idea of “livability” seriously and directed allocations accordingly. In March 2009, the DOT announced the Joint Sustainable Communities Initiative with the Department of Housing and Urban Development with the goal of coordinating federal transportation and housing expenditures. This was a major demonstration of the government’s commitment to the effort to plan mobility and development in sync, an idea that has been accepted by urban planners for years but largely off the radar of government officials.
In addition, in January 2010, the agency announced that it would be changing the way it judged transit New Start capital grants to move beyond the assumption that cost-effectiveness based on “travel time savings” is the most important indicator of a good transportation project. This policy move opened up the possibility of funding “slow” transit, arguably the best sort for the creation of walkable neighborhoods.
In Fall 2010, the Obama Administration began pushing for a new transportation bill. The President announced that he wanted a $50 billion “downpayment” on transportation infrastructure with the ultimate goal of constructing 4,000 miles of railways and 150 miles of runways, on top of renovating 150,000 miles of roads. This package — a sort of second stimulus — would be the first step in a multi-year transportation bill. But the Congress’ focus instead on tax cuts won the day, and this transportation focus seemingly disappeared.
Two years of Democratic Party power in Washington, then, meant quite a few improvements to the nation’s transportation policy-making, bringing to the fore projects that have been largely ignored by the government for decades. The Obama Administration and its allies in Congress have made clear their collective interest in funding projects that are founded on the idea that transportation can be an important element in the creation of livable cities. This represents a significant and positive change from past federal policy. But there is more work to be done.
Republican control of the House of Representatives is unlikely to simplify the extension of many of the new programs undertaken over the past two years — from high-speed rail to TIGER. Though these programs have faced some controversy and should be made more transparent, they have been well-managed, largely fair in their distribution of grants, and, crucially, have spread funding to cities across the country, in both Red and Blue states. In order to assure their future, President Obama will have to articulate their positive effects nationwide and advance ways to fund them that appear bipartisan and consensus-worthy.
Will he make the effort to do so when the nation has so many other pressing needs? Is there enough political support on either side of the aisle to maintain a major federal commitment to transport policies that do not revolve around the construction of highways?
I should note as a postscript that Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood, who had no concrete previous transportation experience, has taken to his job quite seriously and is deserving of praise. Though in his previous post — as a congressman from Peoria, Illinois — he represented an area relatively unfamiliar with the mobility needs and problems of the nation’s biggest cities, he has proven himself to be a strong advocate of transit and intercity rail programs. Compared to the experience under President George W. Bush, Mr. LaHood has been practically a dream; Mr. Bush repeatedly asked Congress to reduce expenditures on Amtrak to zero (the legislature fortunately declined to do so) and the Secretary of Transportation in his later years, Mary Peters, almost shut the doors on one of the nation’s biggest and most important transit projects, the extension of the Washington Metrorail to Dulles. Similarly, Ms. Peters was unwilling to spent federal money on streetcars and hoped to replace most light rail plans with cheaper bus rapid transit lines. What a change we have seen in Mr. LaHood.