» Conservatives in Congress threaten to shut down funding for transit construction projects and investments in intercity rail. One doesn’t have to look far to see why these programs aren’t priorities for them.
Late last week, a group of more than 165 of the most conservative members of the House of Representatives, the Republican Study Committee, released a report that detailed an agenda to reduce federal spending by $2.5 trillion over ten years. Spurred on by increasing public concern about the mounting national debt, the group argues that the only choice is to make huge, painful cuts in government programs. With the House now in the hands of the Republican Party, these suggestions are likely to be seriously considered.
Transportation policy is prominent on the group’s list, no matter President Obama’s call for investments in the nation’s transportation infrastructure, expected to be put forward in tonight’s state of the union address. Not only would all funding for Amtrak be cut, representing about $1.5 billion a year, but the Obama Administration’s nascent high-speed rail program would be stopped in its tracks. A $150 million commitment to Washington’s Metro system would evaporate. Even more dramatically, the New Starts program, which funds new rail and bus capital projects at a cost of $2 billion a year, would simply disappear. In other words, the Republican group suggests that all national government aid for the construction of new rail or bus lines, intercity and intra-city, be eliminated.
These cuts are extreme, and they’re not likely to make it to the President’s desk, not only because of the Democratic Party’s continued control over the Senate but also because some powerful Republicans in the House remain committed to supporting public transportation and rail programs. But how can we explain the open hostility of so many members of the GOP to any federal spending at all for non-automobile transportation? Why does a transfer of power from the Democratic Party to the Republicans engender such political problems for urban transit?
We can find clues in considering the districts from which members of the House of Representatives of each party are elected.
As shown in the chart above (in Log scale), there was a relatively strong positive correlation between density of congressional districts and the vote share of the Democratic candidate in the 2010 elections. Of densest quartile of districts with a race between a Democrat and a Republican — 105 of them, with a density of 1,935 people per square miles or more — the Democratic candidate won 89. Of the quartile of districts with the lowest densities — 98 people per square mile and below — Democratic candidates only won 23 races. As the chart below demonstrates (in regular scale), this pattern is most obvious in the nation’s big cities, where Democratic Party vote shares are huge when densities are very high.
This pattern is not a coincidence. The Democratic Party holds most of its power in the nation’s cities, whereas the GOP retains greater strength in the exurbs and rural areas. The two parties generally fight it out over the suburbs. In essence, the base of the two parties is becoming increasingly split in spatial terms: The Democrats’ most vocal constituents live in cities, whereas the Republicans’ power brokers would never agree to what some frame as a nightmare of tenements and light rail.
What does this mean? When there is a change in political power in Washington, the differences on transportation policy and other urban issues between the parties reveal themselves as very stark. Republicans in the House of Representatives know that very few of their constituents would benefit directly from increased spending on transit, for instance, so they propose gutting the nation’s commitment to new public transportation lines when they enter office. Starting two years ago, Democrats pushed the opposite agenda, devoting billions to urban-level projects that would have been impossible under the Bush Administration.
Highway funding, on the other hand, has remained relatively stable throughout, and that’s no surprise, either: The middle 50% of congressional districts, representing about half of the American population, features populations that live in neighborhoods of low to moderate densities, fully reliant on cars to get around. It is only in the densest sections of the country that transit (or affordable housing, for instance) is even an issue — which is why it appears to be mostly of concern to the Democratic Party. Republicans in the House for the most part do not have to answer to voters who are interested in improved public transportation.
This situation, of course, should be of significant concern to those who would advocate for better transit. To put matters simply, few House Republicans have any electoral reason to promote such projects, and thus, for the most part they don’t. But that produces a self-reinforcing loop; noting the lack of GOP support for urban needs, city voters push further towards the Democrats. And sensing that the Democratic Party is a collection of urbanites, those from elsewhere push away. It’s hard to know how to reverse this problem.
Many Republicans, of course, represent urban areas at various levels of government. No Democrat, for instance, has won the race for New York’s mayoralty since 1989. And the Senate is a wholly different ballgame, since most states have a variety of habitation types. As Bruce McFarling wrote this week, there are plenty of reasons for Republicans even in places of moderate density to support such investments as intercity rail.
But the peculiar dynamics of U.S. House members’ relatively small constituent groups, in combination with the predilection of state legislatures to produce gerrymandered districts designed specifically to ensure the reelection of incumbents, has resulted in a situation in which there is only one Republican-controlled congressional district with a population density of over 7,000 people per square mile. And that’s in Staten Island, hardly a bastion of urbanism. With such little representation for urban issues in today’s House leadership, real advances on transport issues seem likely to have to wait.