Categories
Congress DOT

An Interview with Secretary Foxx

» Foxx reiterates the Obama Administration’s demand for more transportation funding, but fails to commit to a new funding source outside of business tax reform. He also is non-committal on reforms to the Federal Railroad Administration’s rules for commuter rail systems.

Yesterday, I had the opportunity to chat with Anthony Foxx, who became the U.S. Secretary of Transportation last year and was previously mayor of Charlotte. I wrote an article on the interview’s major focus points on the website of my employer, Chicago’s Metropolitan Planning Council. The transcript of the full interview is posted at the bottom of this post.

In addition to the conclusions I noted on MPC’s site (and please read those; they are relevant to the discussion here), I want to note a few points about the interview that reflect my personal sense of the administration’s progress on moving forward with a new transportation bill.

It was evident in Secretary Foxx’s responses that he remains committed to the Obama Administration’s push to increase funding for transportation. Of course, the Obama Administration has been promoting increased funding for transportation since 2009, beginning with the stimulus (which roughly doubled federal expenditures for transportation for a short period), and continuing with a number of proposals over the years, each of which promoted the idea of a huge infusion of funds for transportation but which ultimately produced little change. From that perspective, Secretary Foxx’s determination to pass a new four-year, $302 billion program for infrastructure (a plan that would increase expenditures by roughly 50%) seems rather unlikely to result in much of anything.

This is particularly true in light of Senator Barbara Boxer’s proposal to simply extend the funding levels provided for in MAP-21, which themselves were little changed from the previous level of spending. At the heart of the problem, as we all know, is that the transportation user fee model (premised on fuel tax revenues) has collapsed and no one is willing to do much of anything about it. It’s not Secretary Foxx’s fault, but the Obama Administration’s decision to propose funding transportation by using “business tax reform,” which is essentially premised on one-time repatriation of foreign assets, is a half-empty call for change, neither likely to pass Congress nor a long-term solution. I’m skeptical. It’s not that the Administration has done anything terribly wrong, but there certainly has not been much courage coming out of the White House on this issue.

No one with particularly significant power is willing to simply say, “I will increase the gas tax,” or “I will institute a vehicle-miles traveled fee.” It’s not an easy demand, certainly, but it is a necessary one if we want to move forward with more funding for our road and transit systems.

In this context, it is frustrating to watch Secretary Foxx, like Secretary Ray LaHood before him, extol the values of high-speed rail (I confess I hold them dear as well), without making any progress in actually paying for it. Foxx pointed to Florida and Texas as models of interest in high-speed rail even in relatively conservative states — a fair point — but he failed to note that those states are hoping that the private sector will chip in for most or all of the cost of those lines. Certainly conservatives will support transportation investments that are fully paid for by someone else, but what happens when the Florida or Texas projects require public subsidy? Will they face the same resistance as has California’s heavily contested project has?

On the other hand, what other options does the Administration have in the face of a recalcitrant House of Representatives?

Nevertheless, Secretary Foxx’s answers about the Department of Transportation’s willingness to expand the possibility of local funding options were positive. States and cities should be able to toll their local highways if they so desire, but right now they’re stymied by federal regulations that make tolling impossible on most Interstate highways. His willingness to consider Transportation for America’s new policy proposal that would encourage local and state competition in awarding transportation funding is potentially exciting.

In addition, where the executive branch of the federal government may have an easier time producing positive results is in the implementation of regulatory changes within agencies of the Department of Transportation. One issue that has been of particular concern to those interested in improving American rail service has been the Federal Railroad Administration’s (FRA) rules about train weight and strength, which effectively make lighter, more efficient European and Asian trains impossible in the U.S. Stephen Smith noted last year in Next City that the FRA was considering changes to these rules by 2015, when positive train control (PTC) is supposed to be implemented.

Secretary Foxx, however, was far less direct on the issue than this change would imply, noting that “Whether that issue or how that issue comes up in the context of that is still an open question, but we’ll take a look at any issues put out there.” It’s hard to know based on that whether the Department of Transportation or the Obama Administration in general will take these issues seriously in the coming months, but the issue is important, and we can only hope they’ll notice.

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Full interview transcript follows below

Categories
Bus Nashville

Is Effective Transit Possible in a Transit-Hostile City?

» Despite the sound intentions from the mayor, opposition may kill Nashville’s BRT project.

One of the primary arguments made for investing in bus rapid transit (BRT) is that such systems can be implemented not only more cheaply, but also with more ease, than rail lines.

A look at the situation in Nashville suggests that there are limitations to that “ease.”

Much like in cities across the country, residents of Nashville have strenuously debated the merits of investing in a 7.1-mile, $174 million BRT line called the Amp. The project would link the city’s east and west sides, running from the Five Points in East Nashville through downtown to St. Thomas Hospital, past the city’s West End. With dedicated lanes along 80% of its route, frequent service, pre-paid boarding, level platforms, transit signal priority, and an improved streetscape to boot, the line could potentially serve about 5,000 rides a day, double the existing demand. In this year’s federal budget, the Department of Transportation recommended allocating it $75 million over the next few years.

From a pure public transportation perspective, the line makes perfect sense: It serves the city’s central east-west spine. Within a half-mile of its stations are 33% of the county’s jobs (132,000 of about 400,000) and 5% of its population (32,000 people), and it is currently undergoing something of a building boom. It would link several hospitals, Vanderbilt University, the downtown core, the transit center, and several tourist attractions. And it would offer transit service speeds similar to those available for private automobiles today.

Yet this week, Mayor Karl Dean — who has been the project’s primary proponent since 2008 — pulled back, reacting to vocal opponents and a state legislature that threatened to block the line entirely. He agreed to eliminate dedicated lanes for buses along about half of the project’s route.

What gives?

For years, opponents have been mounting a campaign against the Amp, arguing that the project would massively increase congestion by taking away lanes of traffic, require wasteful government spending, and destroy retail and restaurants — thereby reducing sales tax revenue. The Stop Amp coalition, it seems, is funded by a local auto dealer, Lee Beaman. Lawn signs have sprouted everywhere.

You might think the project was recommending turning streets into a bus-only zone, depriving motorists of the freedom to use this all-important corridor. But the investment in the new BRT line will actually guarantee the same number of through lanes on 60% of the corridor, and the route will have two lanes of automobile traffic in both directions throughout. These are not skinny streets; they already have at least five lanes of traffic running on them. But the BRT would require taking space from cars. There would be some negative consequences for those who currently drive.

Moreover, the opponents note, there is “already bus service along the proposed Amp route… and the buses are not running at capacity!

Indeed, it is undoubtedly true that Nashville’s recent experience with transit has been far from inspiring. In Davidson County (whose government is shared with the city), 13.3% of families live below the poverty line and 7.6% of households have no vehicle available at all; another 40.3% have just one vehicle available. Yet just 2.1% of the city’s residents take transit to work, representing about 34,000 daily riders. The city’s commuter rail system, the Music City Star, carries just about 900 people per day on average.

But opponents have failed to note the connection between the city’s poor transit service and the demand that would undoubtedly result were better bus services made available. The bus that current serves the city’s West End is scheduled to make the 5 mile trip from downtown to the St. Thomas Hospital in 27 minutes at rush hour — about 10 miles per hour. No wonder few people ride it.

Nonetheless, partially thanks to the support of the Koch Brothers, the state legislature, including both Republican and Democratic members, decided over the past few weeks to make its voice known through legislation. The State Senate passed a bill 27 to 4 that would prohibit center-running transit altogether (most of the Amp would run in the center of the street) and require approval from the State Department of Transportation for dedicated bus lanes. The State House’s equivalent bill would apparently allow for center-running transit, but still require state approval for what is, in the end, a local matter.

Local support for the project, including from the chamber of commerce, has been significant, but not strong enough to push back a hostile state legislature or the local motorists. Thus the rationale behind the mayor’s decision to rid the line of its dedicated lanes in the most controversial areas of the line, in the wealthier West End segment and in front of Mr. Beaman’s car dealership.

One wonders how long the plans for the other dedicated lanes along the corridor will last. Without the dedicated lanes, most of the BRT’s travel time savings, the feature that will make the buses actually attractive to riders, will be lost.

As Daniel Kay Hertz has noted, the popular conversation about appropriate transit investments, in Nashville as much as anywhere, is typically moderated by people who rarely if ever rely on transit. Of course there is opposition to reducing lanes for motorists when virtually everyone who owns a business or runs for office relies entirely on their personal vehicles to get around. How in the world can they be convinced to believe that a BRT project has value?

This phenomenon, which is more than anything else a structural adherence to a pro-automobile transportation policy*, is certainly even more true in a place like Nashville — where decades of sprawl and auto-dependence have wiped out the city’s transit system** — than it is in a major transit market like New York or San Francisco, where similar opposition still pops up all too frequently.

Yet there remains a large, and often potentially underrepresented, share of the population — the poor, the disabled, the elderly, the young, the people who simply don’t want to drive — who would benefit from improved transit, even in a transit-hostile place like Nashville. Who represents their interests?

* One might also refer to it as a structural adherence to the needs and preferences of the wealthy.

** As recently as 1970, 7.3% of Davidson County’s workers used transit to commute.