We’re two weeks out from the 2020 United States presidential election, and the winner will undoubtedly play an important role in directing American urban policy. Given the importance of the presidency and the high stakes of the position on every policy area, it is hard not to focalize on this electoral race as key in establishing what sort of future the United States will have.
Hoping to respond to the economic crisis brought on by COVID-19 and the prospect of Democratic control over both houses of Congress and the White House, Senate Democrats have begun preparations for a $1 trillion infrastructure package. If the legislation pulls from this year’s House-passed H.R. 2 and from Joe Biden’s presidential platform, the legislation could include new funding for electrification; increased support for transit and intercity railways; and requirements that states “fix it first” before expanding highways. These are good concepts, and indeed, there is a lot of room for federal intervention, especially when it comes to filling the gaps left by declining tax revenues over the past several months, particularly when Americans support a potential big federal stimulus by an enormous margin.
Yet the key questions regarding transportation in the United States—whether the country is able to truly adapt its mobility system to mitigate the devastation wrought by climate change; whether we integrate transportation and land-use planning so as to reduce exurban expansion and automobile dependency; whether we harness access as a tool to reduce inequality, rather than as a mechanism to further empower and enrich a lucky few—are in fact more often than not in the hands not of the federal government, but rather in those of elected officials at the state and municipal levels.
This reality of the U.S. federal system will continue to be the case no matter which presidential candidate wins the election, and no matter how exciting their proposed policies may be.
States and cities make most choices on transportation infrastructure—and their choices have been regressive
The federal transportation legislation authorizing expenditures on transportation—reauthorized every five years or so, and known by such acronyms as FAST, MAP-21, and SAFETEA-LU—is typically the big story when it comes to transportation (though it may not be next year, depending on the scale and inclusiveness of a new infrastructure-focused stimulus). It’s essential for members of Congress, who can advertise it as meaningfully contributing to their respective district’s surface transportation infrastructure needs, to the tune of an average of more than $60 billion annually nationwide. It’s important in defining the overall patterns of spending, such as the share of funds to be distributed to road projects versus transit investments.
Despite this avalanche of funding from Washington, the administrators at the U.S. Department of Transportation are not the primary decisionmakers when it comes to what actual planning choices are made about new transportation projects.
The failure of the Obama Administration to make good on its proposed intercity rail plan is a case in point. After convincing Congress to devote billions of dollars to a national network, high-speed rail became a policy against which to rally among conservatives. Several states run by Republican governors simply sent back grants (free money!) the administration had allocated to them.
The result, then, was that a theoretically national plan for investment became a series of planning choices made state-by-state, each picking whether or not they wanted to engage in the overall program. One can imagine a similar outcome if a future administration makes a similar push for new rail investment.
Moreover, the U.S. government distributes transportation funds primarily by pre-determined formula to states, cities, and transportation agencies. For example, in 2020, of federal highway funds more than 90 percent is distributed directly to state governments to do, largely, what they wish.
It is true that certain programs, like the New Starts transit capital program, are more discretionary in that they give the U.S. Secretary of Transportation more oversight over what projects to advance. But, for the most part, even programs like that are largely formulaic; if you follow the rules for developing a transit project, and it scores well enough based on standardized criteria, you can get it in line on the federal list.
Those lower levels of the public sector, in fact, are those that make most of the choices related to what roads should be built or expanded, and what transit lines to promote.
Indeed, consider how different levels of government have distributed funds to transportation. Between 1956 and 2017, the federal government allocated a total of about $3.1 trillion in 2017 dollars to highways, transit, and rail investments around the country (most of which was simply sent down to lower levels of government to spend). During the same period, states and localities spent way more of their own funds: $8.9 trillion.
Since 2000 alone, the story is similar: The federal government has devoted roughly $1.2 trillion to surface transportation, while states and localities have spent $3.4 trillion raised by their own sales taxes, gas taxes, and the like.
In other words, not only does the federal government largely allocate decision making about what transportation projects to build to states and localities, while handing them control of most of the money that it raises, but also states and localities raise way more money that they use to spend on their own objectives.
U.S. governments at all levels have contributed to an infrastructure system that prioritizes road-based travel above all else. Transport Databook.
Unfortunately, neither the federal government nor lower levels of government have been particularly effective custodians of their massive expenditures on transportation—at least when it comes to achieving more sustainable and equitable outcomes. Since 1956, the federal government has devoted just 21 percent of its surface-transportation expenditures on transit or rail investments; states and localities, just 22 percent.
In other words, both have participated in the creation of an American society dependent on the private automobile for most of its function.
An infrastructure stimulus won’t be equitable or sustainable without buy-in from states and cities
If Democrats take the presidency, retain control of the House, and inherit the Senate, they are likely to push a new federal stimulus bill. It may well offer billions of dollars for improved transportation infrastructure, and if you take what Democrats have said over the past year seriously, it will include a vast expansion in support for transit, new climate-focused policies, and a renewed national rail program.
Yet the role of states, municipalities, and other public-sector entities will only be heightened if a stimulus is passed. States will be the entities deciding whether to participate in bringing improved inter-city rail to their communities. Cities will have to determine whether they want to use federal funds to renovate streetscapes to prioritize pedestrians and bicyclists. Transit agencies will have to identify new bus and rail projects that serve the most passengers.
In other words, even with new federal funds, lower levels of government are ultimately those entities making choices about what kinds of projects they want to build. And there’s little stopping states and cities from spending their own money on new highway expansions that encourage pollution, sprawl, and further exacerbate inequality. Because of the focus on what happens in Washington, however, the actions those entities take is typically less visible. Road projects continue at a reckless pace throughout much of the country despite what we know about climate change.
Fortunately, some states have made progress. California, for example, has altered its system of measuring street performance away from prioritizing moving cars. Yet localities in that state continue to push destructive road investments.
Along with a federal stimulus, then, we need action for change within lower levels of government.