Categories
Bus Chicago

Chicago Commits to Downtown Bus Priority

» A series of bus lanes will link commuter rail stations, downtown, and the Navy Pier. It’s not quite a transitway — despite the branding — but it will speed movement for thousands of passengers.

A year and a half after Chicago won $24.6 million in federal funds for the construction of an urban circulator downtown, the city announced this week that it will contribute $7.3 million in tax increment financing to improve the state of bus service in the urban center and link commuter rail stations to office buildings. Together, the money will provide for painting dedicated bus lanes on the Madison/Washington and Clinton/Canal Street pairs for a total of two miles, offer signal priority, improve bus shelters, and add bike lanes. New buses and a small bus transit center at Union Station are also part of the plan.

Though the improvements will be most visible to customers using the new dedicated “Central Area Transitway” connecting Union Station and the Navy Pier northeast of the loop, the new lanes will also be used by seven existing Chicago Transit Authority bus routes which already collectively carry 32,000 riders a day on 1,700 buses.

There is nothing new about the idea of improved circulator service in Chicago’s downtown core. Following the failed efforts of planners in the 1960s and 1970s to expand the city’s subway system, Mayor Richard M. Daley announced in his first year of office (1989) that he wanted to construct a center-city light rail line linking major tourist attractions, commuter rail stations, and the business center. By 1993, the plan had morphed into a $775 million proposal that would include eight miles of median-running track designed to carry four routes — the first running east-west along Madison and/or Monroe Streets between Oglivie Transportation Center and Michigan Avenue; the second heading north-south along the river to Navy Pier; the third running south to McCormick Place Convention Center; and the fourth heading north to the Magnificent Mile of North Michigan Avenue.

The plan came surprisingly close to being realized. The federal and state governments each agreed to chip in $250 million, and local businesses in the Loop — concerned about their ability to compete with retailers on North Michigan Avenue and convinced of the importance of linking commuter rail passengers to the center — agreed to a special tax district that would also raise $250 million. The project would have reshaped the image of and mobility in Chicago’s inner core.

Yet in fall 1993, the U.S. Congress cut off most funding for the project. In 1995, the state pulled out of its share. Business leaders suggested they might double or triple their contribution to the project through neighborhood taxes, but North Michigan Avenue leaders pushed back, suggesting the project gave an unfair advantage to retailers in the Loop. The project died. By 2006, hoping to do something, the city had settled on the idea of a Navy Pier-Union Station busway.

Unlike these previous plans, the new proposal for Chicago will offer only minimal improvements to circulation in the downtown core: Customers will save an estimated 1.1 minutes on travel between Union Station and Michigan Avenue. The priority lanes will be beneficial, but buses will continue to stop at almost every cross street on Madison and Washington, limiting the amount of travel time that can actually be reduced. And the focus on serving the Navy Pier — a tourist trap that is scheduled for a major renovation — speaks to the limited degree to which this route will serve actual commuters.

Nevertheless, the connection between the commuter rail stations west of the Loop and the central business core provided by the bus link will offer the potential for improved circulation downtown. Improved service to Union Station must be a priority, since it is not linked to the L rail rapid transit network (the nearest station is about half a mile away) and it is the focus of the region’s commuter rail and intercity rail improvement efforts. The seven bus lines that will share parts of the route will split off and continue to other parts of the city, meaning that customers who are arriving on the #14 from Jeffery in the South Side, for instance, will have a quicker trip once they reach downtown.

If the CTA designs signage well enough, customers attempting to make the trip from Oglivie Transportation Center — another commuter rail station — to Millennium Park would have six services to choose from, offering fantastic headways of one minute at peak and two minutes off-peak. But the city will have to be careful not to place too much emphasis on the “Central Area Transitway” brand that it will give to the bus that runs the full route from Union Station to Navy Pier, because the most important element of this improvement project is its provision of minor improvements to many bus lines, not just a single one. It should be clear to customers that if they want to take a certain trip, they have several options.

Under Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s leadership, Chicago is taking an incremental approach to the improvement of public transportation in the city, steering away from the mega-fantasies of the Daley era. The CTA is already planning to invest in similar bus priority improvements on Jeffery Boulevard in the South Side for the #14 bus and along the north-south spine of Western Avenue as part of a citywide BRT plan that would fill in the gaps missing from inadequate rail service in certain areas. Slowly but surely, the city’s bus lines are scheduled for improvement.

Yet the city’s bigger ambitions remain apparent. In the application for the federal urban circulator grant in 2010, the city included the following map, documenting potential new transit routes for the center city along dedicated rights-of-way, clearly modeled after the improvements suggested by the 2009 Central Area Action Plan, which proposed light rail lines on the Carroll, Clinton, Monroe, and Lakefront Corridors. They would either be placed underground or along dedicated transit routes, like the McCormick Center busway (for the Lakefront route).

For lack of funding, it will be a long time before any such routes see the light of day. In the meantime, painting a few bus lanes and offering existing lines priority at signals represent a reasonable step forward.

Images above: Chicago downtown circulator routes, from City of Chicago, via Grid Chicago

Categories
Finance

Clearing it Up on Federal Transportation Expenditures

» The federal government has already devolved most of its transportation powers to local and state governments. And there is little evidence that further reducing the power of Washington will produce better transportation investments.

The reaction to President Obama’s 2013 budget for transportation has ranged from the dismissive — “it’s too big to be part of the discussion” — to the supportive (myself, among others), most of the commentary revolving around the proposed program’s large size. Another theme, however, has reemerged in the discussion: The role of the federal government in funding transportation. It’s not a new conversation, of course; in American transportation circles, the roles of the three major levels of government are constantly being put into question.

The argument goes something like this: The federal government, because of its national power and ability to collect revenues from the fuel taxes it administers, is a wasteful spender and it chooses to invest in projects that are inappropriate enough that they wouldn’t be financed by local governments if they were in charge.

Harvard Economist Edward Glaeser argues for the de-federalization of transport spending, suggesting “Whenever the person paying isn’t the person who benefits, there will always be a push for more largesse and little check on spending efficiency. Would Detroit’s People Mover have ever been built if the people of Detroit had to pay for it? We should move toward a system in which states and localities take more responsibility for the infrastructure that serves their citizens.” He also suggests, somewhat contradictorily, that federal funding “tie spending to need or performance.“*

USC’s Lisa Schweitzer asserts that if cities want improved sidewalks or public transportation, they should pay for them themselves. “The typical arguments [are] that “those things are good for us!”,” she writes. “Of course they are. Why can’t you fund them at the city, or in the case of transit, the state level?” [She adds that she will defend federal investment in a future discussion.]

Bruce Katz of Brookings chimes in. “The states and metropolitan areas are once again playing their traditional roles as “laboratories of democracy” and centers of economic and policy innovation,” he adds. “An enormous opportunity exists for the next president to mobilize these federalist partners in a focused campaign for national economic renewal.” The federal government, it is implied, is just too intrusive to make the right decisions.

Here’s the thing: The large majority of decisions on transportation spending with federal dollars is already made at the state and local levels. And state and local governments already contribute huge sums to the operation, maintenance, and expansion of their transportation programs.

Once the federal government collects tax revenue, it distributes funding to the states based on formulas agreed upon by members of Congress. For the most, part, the money goes back to the states and to metropolitan areas, which then fund projects based on the priority lists that they generate. It is true that Washington allocates some money for transit and some for highways, but within those categories, states and local governments generally have power to pay for the projects they want.

Washington does run very competitive grant programs — exactly the type of performance-based financing Mr. Glaeser demands — for transit investment projects and for programs like TIGER (and, indeed, for the much-hated high-speed rail program). Federal guidelines require most of these projects (unlike those funded by formula) to meet cost-effectiveness and ridership standards. This was not true at the time of the Detroit People Mover (a project I admit I abhor), but it is certainly true now.*** While earmarks (now out of the equation entirely) got a lot of attention as being wasteful, even at the height of the process they only accounted for about 5% of transportation spending from Washington.

I can think of plenty of expensive and arguably inappropriate transit projects paid for by local governments that would not meet the guidelines to be funded by the federal government under its competitive programs. Should we hail Mr. Katz’s “laboratories of democracy” that produced these? Would Mr. Glaeser have these federal grant programs dismantled so states or localities could fund underperforming transit?

Meanwhile, states and local governments are contributing massively to transportation funding already, just as Ms. Schweitzer asks them to. I studied Oregon and Illinois a year and a half ago and found that only about a quarter of Oregon’s Department of Transportation budget comes from Washington; about a third of Illinois’ comes from the national capital.

What about those profligate transit agencies that are egged on by the federal government’s wasteful spending? Their operations spending comes from local, state, and fare revenues — not Washington. And expansion projects — especially the big ones — are mostly financed by local revenues, like dedicated sales taxes that voters across the country have approved repeatedly over the past twenty years. The six largest transit expansion projects currently receiving or proposed to receive funding from the Obama Administration this year each rely on the federal government to contribute less than 43% of total costs. Perhaps Detroit would have paid for the People Mover even if it had had to use its own revenues to do so.

Now, even if we were to recognize the high level of devolution of power and funds that currently does exist in the U.S., some might still argue that the federal government exercises too much power. Its distribution formula for fuel tax revenues results in certain states getting more money than their drivers contributed (“donor” states) and certain states getting less (“donee” states). Why not simply allow states to collect their own revenues and spend money as they wish? Why should Washington be engaged in this discussion at all?

For one, as I have noted above, states and municipalities have no clear record of choosing to invest in better projects when they are fully in charge of collecting the revenues to do so. States have too often proven a complete disregard for public transportation investments when they’re left fully in charge — see state infrastructure banks as evidence for that fact. While federal investments in transportation have been far from perfect, they have nonetheless provided for the significant expansion in transit offerings we’re now seeing.

From the 1980s on, the Congress has maintained a steady stream of funding for transit from the fuel tax revenues it collects. How many states, which collect a huge amount of fuel tax revenues themselves, can say the same?

But the most important role of the federal government in transportation financing is to ensure that funding is maintained during economic downturns. The Obama Administration actually increased spending on roads and transit projects following the 2008 recession, despite a decline in federal fuel tax revenues, because it was able to use its power of deficit spending (an authority state and local governments do not have**) to maintain investments when the country needed them. Devolution is overrated.

* Glaeser, when criticizing the transportation budget, also takes the opportunity to refresh his years-long tirade against rail projects, suggesting “Instead of chasing the quixotic dream of high-speed rail in Texas, public-transit aficionados should start agitating for better bus service, with plenty of private competition.” But no one is arguing that we sacrifice better urban bus service for high-speed rail. Is Glaeser suggesting we stop building urban rail lines? If so, how does he expect to transport the people living in all of the towers he wants to construct in the dense urban cores of American cities? Meanwhile, the Obama Administration, no one seems to have noticed, has invested more in bus service improvement projects through BRT and BRT light than any previous federal government.

** Commenter John notes that many transit projects are paid for through bonds, which are in essence deficits, and that states have the technical power to have deficits — and these points are both valid. However, all states except Vermont have some form of balanced budget rule. And the selling of bonds by transit agencies are reliant on them having future guaranteed funding sources to pay back the debt — federal funding like capital grants are an important part of making that equation happen. Transit agencies do not have the ability to expand their debt capacity greatly (unlike the federal government) because of investor fears about future funding security.

*** Update, 22 February: There was a competitive grant program to provide funding for downtown circulators in the 1980s, and four cities won awards. Detroit and Miami built their projects.

Image above: U.S. DOT Headquarters: Not the be-all, end-all. From Flickr user Elvert Barnes (cc)

Categories
DOT Finance Infrastructure President

The President’s Budget: Full of Ambition, Short on Congressional Support

» The executive branch’s proposed spending for FY 2013 would greatly expand spending on transit and intercity rail, but it faces a hostile Congress. It brings good news, however, for five California rail projects and new light rail lines for Charlotte, Honolulu, and Portland.

The White House has introduced a budget — and a reauthorization proposal — that would significantly increase investment in transportation infrastructure over the next six years. Though the legislation as currently designed will not be passed into law because of reluctance from Congress, the Obama Administration’s continued efforts to expand funding for sustainable mobility options are to be praised.

Over the course of the next six years, the Administration proposes significant expansions in transit and rail spending, increasing those programs from 22.9% of the overall DOT budget for surface transportation in fiscal year 2013 (and 21% in actual spending in FY 2011) to 35.7% of the budget in FY 2018. See table below. Though expenditures on highways would increase significantly as well, it would be in public transportation modes that the real expansion would be made. Significant spending on intercity rail — almost $50 billion over six years — as well as new transit capital projects ($21 billion) and state of good repair (SOGR, at $32 billion) would be the most important contributions of the program.

The Administration’s Proposed Six-Year Transportation Reauthorization
Unless noted, amounts in $b201320142015201620172018Total
FHA (including $500 m for TIFIA)42.5746.4649.6653.5455.5158.52305.25
FTA10.7014.9716.5719.4121.8224.31107.78
Transit Formula (FTA)4.766.537.118.058.969.9145.31
Bus Rail SOGR (FTA)3.214.144.655.646.527.4431.61
Transit Expansion (FTA)2.453.013.253.794.174.4121.07
FRA2.557.458.519.119.569.9347.09
Total57.8871.1777.2483.7889.8595.98475.90
FTA & FRA as % of Total22.931.532.534.034.935.732.5

In addition to revenues from the fuel tax (which no one seems willing to advocate increasing), the White House proposes to pay for its transportation bill by reducing the size of the Overseas Contingency Operations fund, which is used to support armed operations abroad. Because of the decision to pull out of Iraq and Afghanistan, the amount of money needed for this purpose is lessened, and thus the possibility of expanding spending on transportation.

Most of the President’s proposal is unlikely to see the light of day in the House of Representatives, controlled by Republicans newly hostile to the idea of using Highway Trust Fund revenues to pay for transit projects. Yet their proposal would create a $78 billion funding shortfall in the Highway Trust Fund over the next ten years according to an analysis by the Congressional Budget Office. That’s with $0 committed to transit! The Administration proposal, on the other hand, is fully funded (or at least accounted for*) and would transform the Highway Trust Fund into the much more reasonably titled Transportation Trust Fund; the priorities of each piece of legislation are very clear.

The defection of several House Republicans away from their own party’s transportation bill suggests that the legislation may not even get out of their chamber. At this point, the Senate’s bipartisan, mostly status-quo-extending two-year transportation reauthorization bill is now the most likely of all three proposals to be official government policy by the end of the spring. But even it faces the strong possibility of being ditched in favor of a simple extension of the existing bill, which will expire on March 31 according to the current law.

Nonetheless, the Obama Administration’s plans for this expansion in transit funding, which mirror similar proposals from previous years, are a reminder of  the ambitions for improved transportation that are possible in this country but continue to be derailed by political forces hostile to the idea of investing in the nation’s infrastructure. This is a serious proposal to significantly improve the state of the nation’s rail and bus systems — if we choose to take it.

More definite than any of the recommendations for an expansion in funding are the Obama Administration’s recommendations for new capital investment projects. The Federal Transit Administration contributes a significant portion of costs for new rail and bus lines in the United States through the New Starts and Small Starts programs, though the Department of Transportation is recommending that these simply be merged into a new Transit Expansion and Livable Communities Program, which would also include grants for projects currently funded by the TIGER program.

The major news is that the FTA will recommend pledging its support with Full Funding Grant Agreements (FFGA) soon to four new major rail projects — the Charlotte Northeast Corridor light rail, the Los Angeles Regional Connector light rail subway, the Los Angeles Westside Subway, and the Columbia River Crossing Project light rail line in Portland — in addition to five other rail projects that will receive that funding guarantee a bit soon — a South Sacramento light rail line, San Francisco’s Central Subway, Honolulu’s Rail project, San Jose’s BART extension, and the Portland-Milwaukie light rail line. See the chart below. The latter projects are all under construction; the former group will get underway either by the end of the year or in 2013.

In addition, the FTA will fund nine BRT lines with the Project Construction Grant Agreements (PCGA) across the country. Of course the twelve major projects that already have FFGAs will continue to be funded, including New York’s two megaprojects, the Second Avenue Subway and East Side Access for the Long Island Railroad.

The DOT’s Proposed Funding for Transit Capital Projects (35 projects)
CityProject ModeRatingCost m$% Fed ShareLength MiRiders kCost / Rider k$
New YorkLIRR East Side AccessCRFFGA738635.63.516744
New York2nd Ave Phase 1MFFGA486726.72.321323
DallasGreen/Orange LinesLRTFFGA140649.821.045.931
DenverEagle East CorridorCRFFGA204350.430.257.535
Salt LakeDraperLRTFFGA19359.83.86.828
WashingtonDulles Metro Phase 1MFFGA314228.611.785.737
SeattleUniversity LinkLRTFFGA194841.73.140.248
HartfordHartford-New BritainBRTFFGA56748.59.416.335
OrlandoSunrail Phase 1CRFFGA35750.132.07.448
MinneapolisCentral CorridorLRTFFGA95749.59.840.923
HoustonNorth CorridorLRTFFGA75659.55.329.925
HoustonSoutheast CorridorLRTFFGA82354.76.628.829
SacramentoSouth Phase 2LRTPending27050.04.31027
San FranciscoCentral SubwayLRTPending157859.71.735.145
HonoluluRail TransitMPending512630.220.111644
San JoseSilicon Valley BART Phase 1MPending233038.610.24651
PortlandPortland-MilwaukieLRTPending149050.07.322.865
Los AngelesRegional ConnectorLRTRecommended134350.01.988.215
Los AngelesWestside SubwayMRecommended566242.48.978.772
CharlotteNortheast CorridorLRTRecommended106950.09.324.643
PortlandColumbia River CrossingLRTRecommended94090.42.92243
JacksonvilleSoutheast Corridor (2014)BRTRecommended PCGA2479.211.14.75
PhoenixCentral Mesa (2016)LRTRecommended PCGA19837.93.19.720
FresnoBlackstone/Kings Canyon (2014)BRTRecommended PCGA4881.313.87.27
OaklandEast Bay (2016)BRTRecommended PCGA20536.614.441.75
San FranciscoVan Ness (2016)BRTRecommended PCGA12659.52.052.42
JacksonvilleNorth Corridor (2013)BRTRecommended PCGA3381.89.34.67
Grand RapidsSilver Line (2014)BRTRecommended PCGA3580.09.67.25
El PasoDyer Corridor (2015)BRTRecommended PCGA3557.1123.410
EugeneWest Eugene EMX (2017)BRTRecommended PCGA9678.18.97.413
San DiegoMid Coast CorridorLRTPlanning - Medium High164249.411
BaltimoreRed LineLRTPlanning - Medium High221950.014.55739
WashingtonPurple LineLRTPlanning - Medium High192650.016.360.132
MinneapolisSouthwest CorridorLRTPlanning - Medium122150.0
HoustonUniversity CorridorLRTPlanning - Medium139350.011.3

FFGA – Full Funding Grant Agreement (formerly New Start) already approved by FTA, meaning that the federal government has guaranteed payment on its share of capital costs, and project is moving forward.

Pending – The FTA is planning to advance with a FFGA this year.

Recommended – The FTA intends to work with the transit agency to prepare for a FFGA either this year (Charlotte) or next (Los Angeles and Portland).

Recommended PCGA – The FTA is planning to advance with a Project Construction Grant Agreement (formerly Small Start) with a transit agency either this year or next.

Planning – Still under review; FFGA likely in several years. Rating indicates DOT’s empirical sense of the project’s value.

* “Fully funded,” of course, is a nebulous term: Does money saved from pulling out of overseas military conflicts “count” as money to be spent somewhere else? The Administration says yes, while Republicans in Congress say no, arguing that that money is deficitary anyway.

Image above: Planned Westwood/UCLA Station, from Metro

Categories
Congress DOT Elections Finance

Time to Fight

» With a House like this, what advances can American transportation policy make?

Actions by members of the U.S. House over the past week suggest that Republican opposition to the funding of alternative transportation has developed into an all-out ideological battle. Though their efforts are unlikely to advance much past the doors of their chamber, the policy recklessness they have displayed speaks truly poorly of the future of the nation’s mobility systems.

By Friday last week, the following measures were brought to the attention of the GOP-led body:

  • The Ways and Means Committee acted to eliminate the Mass Transit Account of the Highway Trust Fund, destroying public transportation’s source of steady federal financing for capital projects, first established in the 1980s. The members of the committee determined that to remedy the fact that gas taxes have not been increased since 1993,* the most appropriate course was not to raise the tax (as would make sense considering inflation, more efficient vehicles, and the negative environmental and congestion-related effects of gas consumption) but rather to transfer all of its revenues to the construction of highways. Public transit, on the other hand, would have to fight for an appropriation from the general fund, losing its traditional guarantee of funding and forcing any spending on it to be offset by reductions in other government programs.** This as the GOP has made evident its intention to reduce funding for that same general fund through a continued push for income tax reductions, even for the highest earners.
  • The House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee approved a transportation reauthorization bill on partisan lines (with the exception of one Republican who voted against it, Tom Petri of Wisconsin) that would do nothing to increase funding for transportation infrastructure in the United States over the next five years despite the fact that there is considerable demand for a large improvement in the nation’s road, rail, and transit networks just to keep them in a state of good repair, let alone expand them to meet the needs of a growing population.
  • The committee voted to eliminate all federal requirements that states and localities spend 10% of their highway funding on alternative transportation projects (CMAQ), such as Safe Routes to School, sidewalks, or cycling infrastructure, despite the fact the those mandated investments are often the only ones of their sort that are actually made by many states.
  • The committee eliminated the Obama Administration’s trademark TIGER program, which has funded dozens of medium-scale projects throughout the country with a innovative merit-based approach. Instead, virtually all decisions on project funding would be made by state DOTs, which not unjustly have acquired a reputation as only interested in highways. Meanwhile, members couldn’t resist suggesting that only “true” high-speed rail projects (over 150 mph top speed) be financed by the government — even as they conveniently defunded the only such scheme in the country, the California High-Speed Rail program.
  • The same committee added provisions to federal law that would provide special incentives for privatization of new transportation projects — despite the fact that there is no overwhelming evidence that such mechanisms save the public any money at all. And under the committee’s legislation, the government would provide extra money to localities that contract out their transit services to private operators, simply as a reward for being profit-motivated.
  • Meanwhile, House leadership recommended funding any gaps in highway spending not covered by the Trust Fund through a massive expansion in domestic energy production that would destroy thousands of acres of pristine wilderness, do little for decreasing the American reliance on foreign oil, and reaffirm the nation’s addiction to carbon-heavy energy sources and ecological devastation. New energy production of this sort is highly speculative in nature and would produce very few revenues in the first years of implementation. As a special treat, the same leadership proposed overruling President Obama’s decision to cancel the Keystone XL pipeline by bundling an approval for it into the transportation bill.

This litany of disastrous policies were endorsed by the large majority of Republicans on each committee, with the exception of two GOP members in House Ways and Means*** and one in the Transportation Committee who voted against the bill, though the vote was entirely along party lines for an amendment attempting to reverse course on the elimination of the Mass Transit Account.

Fortunately, these ideas are unlikely to make it into the code thanks to the Senate, whose members, both Democratic and Republican, have different ideas about what makes an acceptable transportation bill. I’ll get back to that in a bit.

The House’s effort to move forward on a new multiyear federal transportation bill — eagerly awaited by policy wonks for three years — follows intense and repeated Republican obstructions of the Obama Administration’s most pioneering efforts to alter the nation’s transportation policy in favor of investments that improve daily life for inhabitants of American metropolitan areas. As part of that process, federally funded high-speed rail, streetcar, and transit center projects have been shot down by local politicians as a waste of money, even as road construction has continued apace.

The Tea Party’s zany obsession with the supposed U.N. plot to take over American land use decisions through Agenda 21 seems to have infected GOP House members and even presidential contenders. Michele Bachmann’s claim in 2008 that Democrats are attempting to force people onto light rail lines to travel between their housing “tenements” and government jobs may have made it into the mind of Newt Gingrich, who recently made the claim that the “elite” in New York City who ride the subway and live in high-rise condos don’t understand “normal” Americans. What kind of language is this?

In the Senate, there is clear evidence that the hard-core proposals of the House will not become law. The upper body’s Environment and Public Works Committee unanimously endorsed a different type of transportation reauthorization, one that would last only two years but that would reform and simplify the grants provided by the Department of Transportation so that they are more based on merit in such matters as ecological sensitivity and the creation of livable communities.

Similarly, in the Senate Banking Committee, the transit portion of the proposed bill (approved unanimously) would maintain funding guarantees and allow transit agencies to use federal dollars for operations spending during periods of high unemployment, which would be an excellent policy if pushed into law. How the Senate will be able to compromise with the House in time for the March 31st deadline set by the current legislation is up in the air.

The strange and laudable part of the Senate side of the story — at least as compared to the House — is the bipartisan nature of decision-making there. Why are Republicans in the Senate promoting a transportation bill that explicitly would promote multimodalism as a goal, in a contrast to the highway focus of their peers in the House? Why are they accepting environmental criteria as appropriate measures of quality in transportation policy? Perhaps the Democratic Party’s control of the Senate makes fighting such ideas a waste of time. Or perhaps longer Senate terms in office allow clearer, more reasonable thinking.

Whatever the reason, in the long-term, it is hard to envision reversing the continued growth of the GOP’s strident opposition to sustainable transportation investments in the House. As I have documented, density of population correlates strongly and positively with the Democratic Party vote share in Congressional elections; the result has been that the House Republicans have few electoral reasons to articulate policies that benefit cities. Those who believe in the importance of a sane transportation policy need to make more of an effort to advance a sane transportation politics to residents of suburban and rural areas, who also benefit from efforts to improve environmental quality, mobility alternatives, and congestion relief, but perhaps are not yet convinced of that fact. Doing so would encourage politicians hoping for votes outside of the city core — Democratic or Republican — to promote alternatives to the all-highways meme that currently rules the GOP in the House.

In the face of such actions, it becomes imperative in the short term not only to ramp up citizen opposition to the defunding of transit and associated programs, but also to full-throatily endorse those leaders who will stand up to fight. Not working for their election in the fall risks policies like those being advanced in the House being passed by an acquiescent Senate and signed by a future president. Such actions would put in question the potential improvement of existing programs and turn back on the policy strides that must be made to contest the vision some have of an all-automobile America.

* The Congressional Budget Office recently estimated that based on current tax receipts, the government will run out of funding for new highways next year and for new transit in 2014.

** I have in the past frequently cited the failings of the current user-fee based transportation funding system. By taxing people based on their automobile use and using some of the funds for transit, we are of course attempting to counteract the negative externalities produced by pollution and congestion. But in the process, we are charging drivers — even in places with no alternatives — a regressive tax that limits the mobility of the poor. Thus we are directly tying funding for transit to revenues from automobiles, a perverse relationship. Yet the alternative to the user fee is guaranteed funding from the general fund, not arbitrary annual appropriations to transit that House Republicans seem to be promoting.

*** Erik Paulsen of Minnesota and Vern Buchanan of Florida, both of whom represent districts just outside city centers.