Taking Responsibility — Locally

» A reliance on federal aid may not be a realistic approach in a budget-constrained future.

Like it or not, U.S. transit agencies are incredibly reliant on the federal government when it comes to funding their capital needs. In Chicago, for instance, over half of funds expected to pay for new capital investments over the next five years are supposed to be handed in from Washington. Every major city around the country relies on aid from D.C. for the purchase of new buses and trains, the maintenance of existing infrastructure, and the construction of new rights-of-way.

The current state of things in the nation’s capital, however, should put in question just how much local agencies can rely on federal funds to go about their business. Congressman John Mica’s proposal for a six-year transportation reauthorization bill — currently the only such legislation that has actual funds attached to it* — would cut annual federal expenditures on transport by 30% to match revenues being taken in by the national fuel tax; the wording of the bill implies that urban transit’s share could be cut even more decisively. That would be devastating. Take Los Angeles, where 10 to 20% of all of Metro’s funds are derived from federal sources; such a bill would result in a $1.44 billion cut over six years.

With debt ceiling negotiations continuing to focus in on reductions in long-term discretionary spending — that includes transportation — there is little reason to expect that the picture will improve even in the medium term.

Though President Obama and many members of the Congress have proclaimed their support for expanded national investments in infrastructure like public transportation, they have been unable to identify actual methods by which to fund it. Nobody in power wants to raise the gas tax, apparently. Nor do they want to install a vehicle miles travelled fee. Or, for that matter, make a strong claim for using debt today to make investments in tomorrow’s needs.

Faced with these terrible circumstances, the nation’s transit providers will have no choice but to increase fares or cut service in the short term and look for improved efficiencies in management over the next several years. If implemented correctly, these reforms could produce public agencies that are more effective and less wasteful than they have been in the past. Having to live with constrained resources can — can — lead to innovative thinking about how to provide the best quality service at the most reasonable price.

But there is only so much you can do to improve service delivery with a declining budget — and transit agencies have already tightened their collective belts considerably over the past few years. Thanks to genuine interest in reinvestment in our urban cores, a significant need to focus public policies on subduing the effects of climate change, and a frustratingly high rate of poverty, transit must play an increasingly important role in the provision of mobility not only in our biggest cities but also in medium-sized cities throughout the U.S. So reducing public transportation provision cannot be an option.

While Washington may be a morass of inaction, it is thankfully not the only source of public funds; there are local, regional, and state governments out there that already collect taxes and that could step in — if their leaders felt up to the task.

At the lower levels of America’s federal system, we have already stepped in many times to improve our transportation networks; operating funds are covered either by fare revenues or dedicated taxes. And while the national government continues to contribute a major proportion of overall spending on new rail transit lines, local agencies must contribute a significant match in order to win approval for their plans. But it may be time to take the existing pattern a step further — that is, if the national government does not sweep in at the last minute to save the day, something it can hardly be expected to do.

This means states and municipalities must make a far clearer commitment to the long-term health of their transportation agencies by establishing new guaranteed annual capital funds to replace lost federal revenues. This means submitting far more significant proposals to referenda than the 1/2¢ sales tax increases every decade or so that constitute the most ambitious policy moves on transportation finance usually undertaken today. No, we need property tax enlargement, or an inflation-aligned growth in the state fuel tax, or income tax surcharges. With the decline in federal revenue collection, states and municipalities need to fill in the gap, or let the needs of their transportation agencies go unfulfilled. This will require significant political leadership.

There are downsides to this approach. One of the great advantages of federally sourced funds is that they can be distributed along egalitarian lines. A large poor city may contribute fewer tax revenues to the central government than a small wealthy one, but a redistribution-oriented federal system allocates collected funds along population lines and gives the more populated city more funding, making the situation more fair from a proportional perspective.

Similarly, Washington’s involvement may now come across as too intrusive, requiring too much regulation and the like, but valuable environmental and public consultation rules enforced at the national level may not be taken seriously more locally. Attaching the rules to the awarding of federal funds ensures that they are.

Most problematically, by encouraging states and localities to tax themselves to pay for the public resources they desire, a Tiebout mechanism will be put in order. You don’t want public transportation? Fine, don’t live in a state or city that doesn’t tax you to pay for it. Want transit? Be willing to put up the local funds to pay for it — and convince the rest of your neighbors to agree, or encourage them to move out.

For the least wealthy members of society, however, such a system is inherently classist, since it forces people who, for example, do not have a car to live in the places where they are taxed to pay for transit, which must be subsidized to operate. So not only are they put at a disadvantage because of their poverty, but they are also forced to bear the full burden of paying for the costs of their mobility needs, which are arguably a right. Federal funding, which taxes people at the same rates across the country, avoids that problem.

Overcoming these difficulties may be downright impossible. But in an age of cutbacks, we may have no other option but to act, whether Washington is ready to follow through or not.

* Senator Barbara Boxer’s two-year proposal, while a much more reasonable bill that would maintain federal spending at existing levels, has a $12 billion gap that no one has been able to fill thus far.

Dallas Streetcar

Dallas, a Transit Builder if Not Pioneer, Moves Forward on Streetcar

» A 1.6-mile streetcar line would bring dubious benefits to this Texas city.

Not all transit expansion projects are created equal — let that be clear. Sure, expanding public transportation options in general usually contributes to the expanded mobility of urban residents. But governments, as we know all too well, have limited funds. So identifying the best possible investments for the money must be an essential part of political decision-making.

Which brings us to Dallas, which submitted plans this week for a 1.6-mile streetcar from the city’s downtown to the Oak Cliff neighborhood just southwest across the Trinity River. It could be the first rail line in the U.S. to feature streetcars that use battery propulsion instead of always having to rely on overhead catenary. The project was funded by a U.S. Department of Transportation’s TIGER grant in February 2010 and it will be Texas’ first modern streetcar line if it opens as planned in 2013 (the existing McKinney Avenue Trolley, open since 1989 in Uptown and currently being extended, uses historic vehicles). Though it may generate construction jobs — one of the major goals of the federal funding program — the rail line will do next to nothing to improve the quality of public transportation in this, America’s ninth-largest city, still suffocated by its automobile dependency.

I will get to the point quickly: Though the $23 million the Dallas Oak Cliff streetcar will cost to construct is truly tiny compared to the investments other cities are making in light rail or subways, the characteristics of this project make one wonder if it is worth spending any money at all on it. There are plenty of projects around the country that could take advantage of these funds in a far more efficient, customer-focused manner.

The project violates almost all the basics of transit project delivery. Worst is its proposed single-track construction — there will not even be any bypass tracks included as far as I can tell (see update below: this issue has been partially resolved) — which will limit service to 20-minute maximum frequencies. From day one, the service will be limited to what in a standard transit system would be considered poor operations quality. And this is basically an impossible-to-resolve structural problem, since once construction has been completed, there will be little appetite for more of it in the same locale.

To put it another way, 20-minute frequencies mean ten minute average waiting times; combined with the seven minutes it will take trains to journey the 1.6 miles from origin to destination, this means that on average, walking will be just as fast as taking the train. And the lack of bypass tracks means that any future extensions would increase maximum frequencies even further. This is hardly convenient transit, and everyone seems to recognize that fact, considering service will end at 7 PM each day, with no weekend operations. An urban rail line with a service pattern that is less broad than that of a typical city bus should raise some serious questions.

If this project serves such an important travel market as to deserve the significant investment that is required to put tracks in the street, why are such pitiful operations planned?

Then there is the issue of stop placement. The line’s four proposed stops are already bordering on too many considering the short route distance. But confounding the matter is the fact that three of those stops are within a half-mile of one another in the Oak Cliff neighborhood; this means streetcar stops less than every 1,000 feet, slowing down service and increasing costs. Is the assumption that people simply will be unable to walk more than a few blocks to a station? If this were true, isn’t the whole point of the transit investment, premised on people walking from stops to their final destinations, kind of problematic?

Similarly, the two terminal stops fall short of the likely destinations of many of their users. On the Oak Cliff end, trains will stop two blocks short of the Methodist Hospital, landing instead across from a large parking garage. That’s friendly competition.

On the downtown Dallas side, trains will stop at Union Station, which is an acceptable terminus but not nearly as good as what was originally planned — line up Main Street, through the heart of the central business district (which would have increased the line’s price to $58 million). But the federal government’s willingness to contribute only a portion of funds and the city’s general ambivalence about spending any of its own money has interred that plan, at least for the moment. This produces a situation in which passengers living from Oak Cliff have an only indirect connection to the jobs center, which is several blocks away from Union Station.

Moreover, the line’s creators have chosen to design the connection between the streetcar and Dallas’ lengthy light rail network in such a way that not only makes it difficult for passengers to transfer between the two but also limits the opportunities for interoperability between them. At Union Station, where streetcars will terminate and light rail and commuter rail lines already exist, passengers will have to walk 500 feet to get from one service to the other (this is the one place on the line were short walking distances really matter!). This will make the prospect of transferring between services frustrating and slow, limiting users’ desire to take the streetcar rather than hop into their automobiles.

While the new streetcar will include a track connection to the light rail, that link has paradoxically been designed to eliminate any chance that the streetcar could one day act as an extension of said network. The connection, included to make it possible to maintain streetcars in the light rail shop, doubles-back on the passenger line away from downtown. The plan thus precludes the possibility of providing for a future in which streetcars could utilize the light rail tracks through the downtown to offer better service to the business district.* The possibility that this streetcar line could serve as a sort of tramway, with light rail-type operations in the street right-of-way, has been made difficult by this poor interlining with the light rail and the single tracking. The fact that streetcar and light rail lines are only marginally different and in fact can be made identical in terms of vehicles used appears to have passed over the designers of this project, ironically the operators of the city’s light rail system DART.

From the perspective of a government already light on funds, this Dallas streetcar project thus comes across as inept. Though it would serve a new part of the city, it would do so in a way that adds very little to existing transit options and that offers very little for service improvement in the future. Should this project be a priority for U.S. grant givers? Should Dallas, a city with troubled transit ridership, be focusing on a project that will do next-to-nothing to change those conditions?

No matter the limited benefits of the Dallas streetcar project, of course, it is fortunately not the norm in terms of recent capital projects at most — or at least many — American transit agencies. The streetcar project currently underway in Tucson, for instance, will manage to provide two-track service, reasonable frequencies, and direct service to major destinations in that city. Though this project will indeed be more expensive than its Texan cousin, it will offer far more in terms of transportation benefits and will attract a more significant patronage from day one. On the other hand, we can only hope that for the sake of ensuring appropriate use of limited government dollars, projects like Dallas’ should be curtailed.

*Those knowledgeable of Dallas’ light rail network might note that the downtown route, which runs along Pacific Avenue and Bryan Street, is already congested with trains at rush hour and therefore could not handle the addition of streetcars. But Dallas’ medium-term transit plan identifies a parallel downtown route called D2 that would resolve those issues and leave plenty of room for streetcar operations.

Update. 26 July: Turns out that, unbeknownst to me, Congresswoman Eddie Bernice Johnson managed to secure an additional $3 million in federal funds for the streetcar project last week. These funds will be used to build a passing track, which will allow for significantly improved service and allow trains to run more than every 20 minutes. This makes the project mildly passable — but the other issues raised in this post remain extremely problematic. And though the passing track will be useful, it will not be sufficient to allow for reasonable service on an expanded system.

Elections Finance

With Few Funds Available, What are Transit Agencies to Do?

» The manifest lack of support for an increase in funding for transportation at the federal level means public transportation providers will have to adapt to survive.

This month’s federal budget negotiations have been incredibly disheartening for those of us who believe wholeheartedly in the advantages of popular social welfare provision in the broader sense; the ease with which members of both of America’s two major political parties have dispensed with the goal of widening the provision of Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid suggests that the sense that government can do much to reduce inequalities in our society has been pushed far enough aside as to be ignored in the meeting rooms of even a president representing the so-called left.

The timing of these discussions — premised on GOP skepticism of government spending and Democratic fears of advocating raising taxes — comes not coincidentally just a week after House Republicans revealed their proposal for a six-year transportation budget. If it was not clear last week, it is now: The cuts being proposed would be devastating to the nation’s transit agencies, depriving them of much-needed funds for the purchase of new rolling stock and the maintenance and construction of necessary facilities. Even if this plan, which would diminish already too-limited transportation funds by a third, does not get implemented, the context of the debt negotiations suggests that something much better is unlikely to be had.

This leaves the nation’s transit agencies in a treacherous bind, since local and state transportation funds have seen significant declines as well. Do they hold back on capital spending, hoping for better days sometime a few years from now? Or do they attempt to divert operations funds to capital, potentially threatening their ridership and certainly reducing service quality?

There is no easy answer to this question, but one almost inevitable fact is that transit agencies have four basic choices: Reduce service, increase fares, ask for new revenues, or attempt some combination of the aforementioned three. These are all bad options: The first will make public transportation less convenient for everyone who relies on it; the second will increase its cost; and the third will demand sacrifice from either taxpayers or other public services. With a flustered economy and limited likelihood of quick growth in the near future, however, these are what is available.

Service reductions are the simplest, but potentially most devastating, form of budget-balancing at a transit agency. Since most bus or rail routes are money-loosing — they require subsidies to operate — reducing the number of runs can save everyone money. This could mean eliminating certain routes or decreasing frequencies along the line. Indeed, reducing the number of riders can save money too, if the number of routes that can be eliminated because of lower ridership offsets any marginal loss in fare revenues.*

The problem with this approach is that it sets into play transit’s “death spiral;” fewer and fewer riders are attracted to the service as less convenient options are offered. Then, as there are fewer riders use transit, there is less need for services, resulting in more cutbacks. This situation can only be remediated with the significant and costly re-introduction of good services at an even more subsidized cost; and by then, full-scale use of a city’s transit system is difficult to re-establish.

But if transit systems play an essential role in the urban ecosystem — allowing density, providing environmentally friendly travel alternatives, reducing congestion, offering mobility and access for all — simply cutting back until “you can afford it” is not really an option. The reason we subsidize transit in the first place, after all, is that its societal benefits are more significant than the sum of the amount people are willing to pay in fares to ride it. Thus service cuts — unless performed carefully and only on the least-effective routes — can only play a minor role in an attempt to balance the budget.

The second option, increasing fares, is perhaps the most toxic of the options made available to transit users. Too many riders already think they are being overcharged for less-than-excellent travel options,** so convincing them that they should pay more for the same can be a difficult argument to win; a decline in ridership is likely to occur with any increase in fares.

One alternative is raising the fare not just to the level necessary to make up for the loss of other revenue but rather to a higher bar to pay for service improvements. If the typical user of the system understood the resulting improved frequencies and better routes, they might come to see the fare increase as not a problem but instead as providing a benefit. Starbucks gained traction in the beverage market despite its relatively high prices because consumers appreciated the better (or at least perception of better) coffee they could buy there.

That said, the significant low-income segment of transit riders means that an increase in costs to ride must also mean less mobility for the poorest segments of the population. In the midst of high unemployment and increasing poverty rates, in whose interest would such a policy change be advanced? If combined with reductions for those with limited incomes, though, a fare increase could be both publicly beneficial and economically progressive.

Then there is the final option: Increasing local funding to pay for transportation, a politically dangerous game. Few politicians relish increasing property and sales taxes — the two revenue sources most frequently used to fund local public spending. In many cities around the country, voters have been asked to approve more funding for transit projects, so you can’t just tell them that they must pay more now because of lower-than-expected revenues; more taxes must come with more promises of improvements, which voters may or may not perceive as likely to be fulfilled.

Among service reductions, fare cuts, or local tax increases, there are no good options; no matter what any city chooses as its preferred means to relieve its funding crisis, the next few years are likely to be difficult ones, full of diminished expectations and few improvements in service at transit agencies. With a dominant political atmosphere that prioritizes spending cuts over social services, what else is to be expected?

Update, 19 July: Many of the comments on this article have raised questions about the possibility of increasing efficiency and productivity as an alternative to fare increases or service cuts. To this regard, Alon Levy has an interesting post on the difference between short-term and long-term approaches to deficits in funding; Levy’s article points out that many of the solutions noted by commenters would be difficult if not impossible to implement in the short term.

* The fact that transit services often lose money poses a financial problem even in well-performing, high-ridership systems, where attracting new riders may be a good idea from a social, environmental, or political perspective, but not from an economic perspective, as the new fare revenues they bring in are not large enough to compensate for the cost of providing higher-frequency service or more routes.

** Few mention the fact that transit fares in cities with excellent transit systems are very similar to those in places with miserable ones. Why does it cost a similar amount of money to ride the buses in Chicago, for example, where a high-frequency grid of lines and easy neighborhood access are provided, as in Springfield, Illinois, where few routes and long waiting times are the rule?

Bus Los Angeles Lyon

Reorganizing the Bus System within the Network Hierarchy

» Lyon’s bus network is enlivened thanks to reorganization and new branding.

The advantages offered by street-running bus operations, such as offering a variety of routes and the ability to alter them at will, can sometimes be a curse. Many individual routes may provide direct service to and from specific destinations, but if they are not able to attract enough riders, the resulting low frequency of service makes them ultimately difficult to use for both those dependent and those choosing to use transit.

The New York Timesstory last week on the cancellation of a bus route in Los Angeles raised a number of questions about the manner in which bus routes operate. The Times signaled out L.A. Metro for supposedly being willing to sacrifice the mobility needs of a heavily transit-dependent community, forcing riders onto indirect buses that require transfers. But Metro’s efforts — intended to concentrate users on its most frequent services — will likely improve the quality of public transportation for far more people than are being hurt by the loss of a direct route that only comes every half hour or so. As Jarrett Walker noted, the poor frequencies offered by bus service on the cancelled route meant it was only quicker if the bus was there exactly when you needed it; more frequent services built on transfers will bring better transit for more people at all times of the day. And they mean better access to parts of the city not directly along the route of the local bus.

Indeed, reconfiguring operations to put different services in an understandable hierarchy, focusing better services on a grid of routes, is a tool transit systems must take advantage of to improve the ability of locals to get around by transit. Yet L.A.’s reforms have clearly not been well-enough publicized or justified to attract the understanding and support of much of the public.

In Lyon, France’s second-largest metropolitan area, a rebranding of the local bus system to come on line in late August offers the possibility of reworking the transit network so that it avoids many of these problems and improves service. Lyon already has high transit use, the region’s 1.76 million inhabitants using buses, trams, and the metro 1.24 million times a day. (Compare that to similar-sized U.S. regions Indianapolis and Charlotte, whose transit systems carry 30,000 and 83,000 passengers daily, respectively.)

For that city’s transit operators, there is room to grow — and certainly ways to make the system more convenient for its existing users, which explains why the transformation plan is being put into effect. Bus service kilometers will expand by 6%, but the TCL transit agency hopes that other reforms in service will be even more effective in encouraging increased ridership. A campaign building up to the change is designed to alleviate public concerns.

There are four basic components to the transformation plan: A reduction in the complication of bus routes by ensuring that the most-used routes always have the same origins and destinations and are branded uniformly all day; reliable, 10-minute all-day frequency on about a third of the bus corridors that complement the metro and tram networks; expanded circumferential bus routes that allow people to get from periphery to periphery without having to pass through or transfer in the center and produce a citywide grid of bus lines; and better connections between bus and rail at tramway and TER regional rail stops. The bus service change is branded atoubus, which, depending on how you read it, can mean either “bus for everyone” or “bus with assets.”

The introduction of 26 major bus routes branded “C” — just like the “M” for the metro, “F” for funicular, and “T” for tram — is perhaps the most significant change. Though bus rapid transit was introduced in Lyon in 2006, it only extended to two routes. Now this collection of branded routes, complemented by 71 more typical bus lines, fills out the network. On the maps, C routes are easily visible thanks to bolder line weights and clear, labeled station stops. One hopes the frequent network maps, including the C lines and the rail corridors, is positioned around the city.

For the sake of understanding, the network revision also takes an important step forward by eliminating attenae or partial termini from routes, a frequent source of irritation for users. Instead, all major bus routes in Lyon will have one origin and one terminus at all times of day. No longer will customers be caught confused by a bus number whose meaning changes seemingly at random.

Finally, the introduction of additional circumferential lines — five of the seventeen will be C lines — will allow better navigation of the city by those whose destination is not downtown. Since most of the rail lines are radial in nature, this improved bus network can in many ways fill the gap — as long as customers understand it, which explains the emphasis on new graphics, signs, and labeling.

As the maps below show, the improved network is designed to emphasize to users the equivalence of the frequent bus routes with the metro and tram. Though most of the routes have not been significantly changed, the map has been reworked to show which bus routes are most frequent. Buses that run only occasionally have been deemphasized, had their lines made more skinny, to reflect their place in the network hierarchy. For both tourists and locals attempting to get to parts of the city they have never accessed, this implies that it is possible to rely on some bus routes just as one would on a metro or tram: Without looking at a schedule.

Bus and rail network in Lyon’s 7th District before reorganization Bus and rail network in Lyon’s 7th District after reorganization

One of the significant advantages of Lyon’s approach is that it is heavily oriented towards customer perception, but involves little actual capital investment. By focusing on branding, TCL will be able to offer riders the feel of a vastly improved bus network — one whose frequent lines effectively double the scope of the rail network — with no initial spending on investments like bus-only lanes (though some may come later). If riders come to understand the changes, they will be able to get around the city in many cases more quickly thanks to well-marked bus routes that are integrated with the rail lines in a region-wide grid.

In many ways, this is what Los Angeles is attempting too, though perhaps its Metro Rapid branding of frequent bus routes is not as convincing as is Lyon’s atoubus (total transit ridership on L.A.’s Metro is little higher than that of Lyon’s CTL before the changes have been implemented, despite the fact that the former covers a far larger city). Indeed, if the Times‘ article misrepresents the value of the changes that city is making to its bus system, it is because the writers — and presumably many of the riders — fail to understand the added benefits of a transit system that relies on transfers and frequent bus routes on a grid of corridors. This is where, if implementation goes well, Lyon’s emphasis on customer communication and visible network connections may very well prove to be a model.

Images above: Trolleybus in Lyon, from Flickr user FaceMePLS (cc) (top); Before and after maps of Lyon bus and rail network, from TCL

Congress DOT Finance Infrastructure Los Angeles

For Federal Transportation Investment, a Difficult Prognosis

» A new plan for the country’s transportation financing system from Congressman John Mica would cut spending significantly — but Democrats have yet to provide a serious counter-proposal.

With everyone from Mitch McConnell to Barack Obama arguing — no matter the evidence to the contrary — that the federal budget must be constrained in order to save the American economy, it is perhaps no surprise that the long-expressed hopes of a greatly expanded transportation bill have fallen to the wayside.

The revealing today of House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chair John Mica’s (R-FL) plan for a six-year, $230 billion reauthorization bill is the latest evidence that support in Congress for expanded investment in the U.S. transport network is weak. Though the bill is by no means final — Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Chair Barbara Boxer (D-CA)’s own two-year plan, slightly larger (and with $12 billion in missing revenues), was partially revealed yesterday — the writing is on the wall: At least for now, expecting any improvement in federal funding for transit or even highway programs is unrealistic.

The current federal transportation authorization legislation, SAFETEA-LU, has already been extended several times and will expire on September 30th this year.

Mr. Mica’s proposal would provide $35 billion for surface transportation in fiscal year 2012, rising to $42 billion in 2017. Existing funding provides $51.5 billion, so this would represent a draconian one-third cut in federal spending so that expenditures on transportation match the funding received from federal fuel taxes. It has been clear since last November that the GOP would push for this funding cut once it took control of the House.

Mr. Mica argues that a loosening up of red tape and increasing private investment would make up the difference, a questionable assumption.

The specific distribution of funds to transit or highways has not been enumerated, but the current shares (about 20% for transit and 80% for highways) will be maintained. This would mean a cut from about $11 billion for transit today to about $7 billion. What does this mean? Fewer dollars in the urban formula program means fewer new buses and rail cars for transit agencies across the country. Less money for state of good repair means a decline in the number of renovations of aging railway tunnels and viaducts or bus depots. A loss for the New Starts program means the end of several major capital expansion projects nationwide.

The Administration’s high-speed rail program, already under siege by a siderodromophobic GOP, is axed in the proposal. Livability grants, too fuzzy for the mobility-oriented Mr. Mica, also appear to have been taken out of funding consideration.

Compared to the heady days of early 2009, during which the Congress approved billions of dollars in additional funding for transportation in the stimulus bill, this represents quite a turnaround. And even early this year, President Obama announced that he would push for a $556 billion six-year transportation bill that would more than double annual national expenditures on public transportation (he wanted $128 billion in 2012 alone) and introduce significant support for a high-speed rail program. Though Mr. Obama continues to articulate support for a major infrastructure initiative, he has been unable to put forward a proposal that would fund such a project.

Democrats, sitting in the minority on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, were quick to lambaste the proposal. They argued that the significant reduction in spending on transportation that the Mica proposal would entail would result in a significant loss of jobs. And indeed they would. But in Washington, where the mood has shifted sharply away from the idea that government might be able to aid the advancement of the economy, even these committee Democrats were unwilling to propose a funding mechanism that would actually finance the bill they would introduce if they were able.

This is ultimately the handicap that has restrained any increase in expenditures on transportation; as is made explicitly clear in the document that adjoined the bill, the Highway Trust Fund — the fuel tax-filled bank account that finances surface transportation in this country — is broke, and the situation is worsening. While it might make sense for Mr. Obama and Ms. Boxer to propose larger bills simply because the country’s infrastructure is in a deplorable condition, without any way to finance them, how can they be approved by the Congress? Both have relied on promises of future “revenue sources” but ruled out an increase in the gas tax or the implementation of a vehicle miles-traveled fee. When cherished entitlement programs are on the cutting block because of a general unwillingness to expand the nation’s debt, how can an increase in the deficit to pay for transportation be defended?

Stuck with limited resources, then, Mr. Mica’s bill is the only approach that seems realistic. But even ignoring the overall spending amounts, the bill is quite problematic.

Though Mr. Mica’s specific approach is not yet apparent since the full legislation has yet to be released, the bill outline does state that “The percentage of available formula funds for transit programs that benefit suburban and rural areas” would be increased. The low down: Urban transit systems — the agencies that serve the vast majority of transit users — would suffer the ridiculous indignity of having their already smaller pot of funds be cut even further to benefit the less cost-effective, least valuable public transportation systems.

Eliminating red tape in the federal approval process is another of Mr. Mica’s priorities, and indeed, there may currently be more studies and years required to move forward with a transportation project than necessary. But it is difficult to believe that cutting off a few years from the planning process for new road or transit projects will make up for billions of dollars in lost financing for new buses or trains.

Bemoaning the lack of funding for transit and transportation in general is a worthwhile endeavor, but the real challenge continues to be whether any significant group of politicians of any stripe can be convinced of the need for revenue generators. In other words, without new taxes to fund the transportation program, the argument that the nation’s infrastructure is inadequate will never really matter.

If leaders in Washington have failed to advance on these matters, local and state leadership could fill the gap — if they so desire.

Though Mr. Mica’s bill would not introduce an infrastructure bank (one of Mr. Obama’s repeated goals since he entered office), it would expand funding for TIFIA grants and loans, offered by the Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act. One billion dollars would be appropriated annually to use federal dollars to leverage private-sector investments, which would then be paid back either through user-generated fees or dedicated taxes applied at the local level.

The value of this approach was demonstrated yesterday, when Los Angeles announced that it had received a $640.8 million low-interest TIFIA loan to begin work on its Westside Subway project. The money will eventually be paid back by sales tax receipts collected in L.A. County over the next 30 years. The extension, which would bring trains eight miles from the existing Wilshire/Western station to the V.A. Hospital in Westwood, will cost a total of $5.3 billion, so the loan is just a starting point, but it is a good one, since if all financing is lined up, it will allow completion in 2022, instead of 2036, the soonest possible without any sort of loan.

Would this program, in association with Mr. Mica’s plan to open newly built federally funded Interstate highways to tolling, be enough to “double” funding for transportation, as he has suggested? It seems unlikely — at least in the long term. While the TIFIA loans will make it possible to advance construction more quickly, they will have to be paid back eventually, using local sales taxes — which won’t be usable for projects twenty years from now. Some private investors may choose to jump on board, but getting private sources to contribute to public transit projects while saving money overall has been a notoriously difficult process in our day and age.

Mr. Mica’s proposal is not the law yet, but more endowed alternatives to it have yet to have their funding sources adequately described by Congresspeople willing to raise the specter of increasing taxes. We’re waiting.