Elections Finance Infrastructure

Both parties claim support for investing in infrastructure. But how will they do it?


» The Republican Party, despite its claims about the importance of infrastructure—and big promises from Donald Trump—pushes a more limited federal role. Democrats, in line with Hillary Clinton, advocate large new investments.

During an election year where trade and terrorism have taken center stage, it’s hardly surprising issues related to transportation have played a limited role in the national discussion about how to move the U.S. forward. Some have noted that urban policy has largely been ignored, despite the fact that many American cities continue to face considerable problems related to public investment, poverty, and economic growth.

Yet the reality is that the Democratic and Republican parties and their respective candidates for the presidency, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, have laid out positions on the future of the nation’s transportation system through party platforms, candidate issue memos, and public statements. The approval of the two parties’ platforms over the past two weeks motivated me to provide a detailed summary of the differences between the platforms.

On issues related to the funding, mass transit, biking, and the environment, the two parties have staked out dramatically different views about how they envision the future of the nation’s transportation system. Democrats are proposing an expansive increase in federal support for transportation investment, with a focus on building access to opportunity, bolstering access to non-automobile modes, reducing the impacts of climate change, and maintaining the role of unions.

Republicans, on the other hand, propose no increase in federal spending (though Mr. Trump may disagree), an elimination of the federal role in funding non-automotive transportation, an emphasis on pollution-spewing modes and energy sources, and a reduction in the role of unions.

A summary of the proposals

Democratic Party and Hillary Clinton Republican Party and Donald Trump
Federal role in transportation Expand to emphasize multimodalism; encourage connections between transportation, cities, climate, and social equity Reduce to only encompass highways (GOP); or fund all types of transportation (Trump)
Funding for transportation Roughly double overall spending using business tax reform, create infrastructure bank Do not adjust funding to inflation (GOP); or expand massively through unknown means (Trump)
Transit and intercity rail Increase support to build social equity and combat climate change Eliminate federal role (GOP); or improve (Trump)
Non-motorized modes Improve funding for biking and walking projects Eliminate federal role
Climate change Orient transportation investments toward responding to climate change Do nothing to address climate change; invest in coal
Project management Support union requirements Eliminate union requirements

Here are the resources for your own evaluation:

Before I delve into the details of the differences between the two parties’ policy proposals, it is vital to emphasize that party platforms and the positions of presidential candidates hardly guarantee the enactment of policy; there is a big difference between agreeing on a proposal and actually legislating change. In many ways, the Democratic and Republican platforms in 2016 are quite similar to those in 2012, and much of the suggestions then have not even been discussed in the halls of Congress, let alone been implemented. For change to occur, presidents need support from members of the House and Senate, who may come from other the other party or who may simply not care about the same issues.

Nevertheless, understanding how the parties and their candidates differ is essential to understanding the dynamics of this election and can help us evaluate how to vote this fall.

The role of the federal government

The Republican platform notes almost at the start of the document that “Our country’s investments in transportation and other public construction have traditionally been non-partisan. Everyone agrees on the need for clean water and safe roads, rail, bridges, ports, and airports.”

This sentiment—that transportation is a bipartisan or apolitical issue—is often repeated by proponents of investment in the nation’s infrastructure as an argument for making it a priority and getting representatives to work together across the aisle. Yet the divergence in goals for the nation’s transportation programs between the Democratic and Republican parties this year show that transportation is quite a political issue, one that is subject to debate and which elicits quite different policy prescriptions.

That’s a good thing! It means that our electoral process can influence how the future of our transportation system looks, and that questions about what transportation is right are subject to public debate, not bureaucratic, expert-driven, and hidden policy making.

The difference between how Democrats and Republicans think about transportation is a reflection of the two parties’ respective views of the federal government’s role.

Republicans use their platform to express a limited view of Washington’s contribution to the infrastructure system, and define the government’s role strictly. “We propose to remove from the Highway Trust Fund programs that should not be the business of the federal government,” the platform states. For Republicans, this has a specific meaning: The federal government should only spend transportation money on automobile commuters (I document the specifics below).

Indeed, the Republican mentality on transportation investment can perhaps best be summarized in its assessment of President Obama’s policies:

“The current Administration has a different approach. It subordinates civil engineering to social engineering as it pursues an exclusively urban vision of dense housing and government transit. Its ill-named Livability Initiative is meant to ‘coerce people out of their cars.'”

This argument, perhaps, is founded on the idea that highways travel between states and that the road network, especially the Interstate one (originally funded by Republican President Dwight Eisenhower), goes between states and therefore needs a federal role. Anything other than that is removed from discussion.

Democrats, on the other hand, have a far broader view of how the federal government should act. The party platform notes that “We need major federal investments to rebuild our crumbling infrastructure and put millions of Americans back to work… we will dramatically increase federal infrastructure funding for our cities—making significant new investments in roads and bridges, public transit…” Ms. Clinton’s policy on transit is diametrically opposed to that of the Republicans; her campaign’s mentality can be summarized in the following statement:

“This underinvestment is particularly costly for many low-income communities and communities of color, as a dearth of reliable and efficient public transportation options often creates a huge barrier to Americans attempting to build better lives. Clinton will prioritize and increase investments in public transit to connect Americans to jobs, spur economic growth, and improve quality of life in our communities…”

The Democratic platform explicitly connects the need to rebuild and expand the nation’s multimodal transportation system as an effort not only to improve mobility, but also to add jobs, “expand the middle class,” address “the climate emergency,” and improve quality of life in the nation’s cities and suburbs. In other words, for Democrats, the federal role should not only grow in size, but also in breadth, encompassing the role transportation plays in realms of life that are affected by transportation, beyond transportation infrastructure investment itself.


The Democratic Party’s position on funding the national transportation system is easier to explain than the Republican one because Ms. Clinton and her party appear to be largely on the same page. The party’s platform, as noted above, suggests an expanded federal and more federal funding, and so does Ms. Clinton. In fact, her policy prescription is a $275 billion boost in funding over five years, of which $250 billion would go directly to public infrastructure investment. This program is similar to the funding proposals President Obama has put forward over the past eight years and it would roughly double funding allocations for transportation in the U.S. Like previous Obama Administration proposals, the plan would be fully funded through business tax reform, not (historically more typical) user fees such as an increase in the gas tax. I am not qualified to judge whether this funding proposal is realistic or not.

Both the party platform and Ms. Clinton would reauthorize the Build American Bond program and the platform notes that the party would “continue to support the interest tax exemption on municipal bonds,” both of which would allow local governments to fund more transportation investment at the local level.

Ms. Clinton also emphasizes potential expansion of the TIGER grant and TIFIA loan programs, which have been boons for cities across the country investing in local projects from the Cincinnati Streetcar to the Chicago Riverwalk. In addition, she points to a potentially revolutionary change by suggesting the “launch [of] a pilot program to explore new ways of getting formula funding, including formula highway funds, directly into the hands of local governments.” This would allow cities and counties to receive their transportation funding allocations from Washington without getting the funds passed through from the states first.

The Republican platform essentially takes the opposite tack. The document notes that “with most of the states increasing their own funding for transportation, we oppose a further increase in the federal gas tax.” While the platform does recognize the importance of infrastructure, it suggests that the federal government should not be paying for any more of it, rather focusing on “remov[ing] legal roadblocks to public-private partnership agreements” to “expand the carrying capacity of roads and bridges.”

Mr. Trump has expressed a very different view of the federal role on transportation infrastructure investment. During a debate, he noted that the U.S. should have spent the money it used on wars on infrastructure; “if we could’ve spent that $4 trillion in the United States to fix our roads, our bridges and all of the other problems… we would’ve been a lot better off.” According to an article by Eric Levitz in New York, Trump has described a “trillion-dollar rebuilding plan… one of the biggest projects this country has ever undertaken.” He has spoken positively of the New Deal, which was a vast federal program that runs contrary to Republican orthodoxy.

Unlike Ms. Clinton, though, Mr. Trump has provided no details on his infrastructure funding plans. He has provided no information on exactly how much funding he would actually provide, how that money would be allocated, and how the money would be raised. It is difficult to take the ideas he has noted in speeches seriously, particularly since his colleagues in the House and Senate would be working off the party’s anti-federal-investment platform.

Public transportation and intercity rail

Mr. Trump has similarly articulated views contrary to the rest of his party with respect to transit and intercity rail. He has expressed excitement by the speed of Chinese high-speed trains, while American ones “go chug… chug… chug,” according to him. And he has noted that “we have to spend money on mass transit… we have to spend a lot of money.”

The Republican platform, on the other hand, argues strongly against funding transit, noting that “we propose to phase out the federal transit program.” The argument is that “mass transit [is] an inherently local affair that serves only a small portion of the population, concentrated in six big cities.” This is an exaggeration (the top ten transit cities account for 47 percent of U.S. transit commuters), but it is worth noting that Republicans have in recent years received few votes in cities, which are dominates by Democratic voters, which provides one explanation for their reluctance to invest in transit.

Intercity rail is similarly held in contempt; the platform notes that taxpayers “must subsidize every [Amtrak] ticket” and that “we reaffirm our intention to end federal support for boondoggles like California’s high-speed train to nowhere.” The Republican policy is to “allow private ventures to provide passenger service in the northeast corridor” (which is the one place where Amtrak is profitable). The platform does not explicitly suggest defunding the public rail agency, however.

Ms. Clinton’s campaign, on the other hand, suggests “buil[ding] a faster, safer, and higher-capacity passenger rail system… to meet rapidly growing demand and build a more mobile America.” While in Florida, she affirmed her support for that state’s canceled project; “we’re going to do more to fight climate change by getting more cars off the road and more passengers into high-speed rail.”

She has also noted significant support for transit. Her campaign notes that “Hillary will increase investments in public transit to connect Americans to jobs, spur economic growth, and improve quality of life in our communities.” She has made no such commitment to investing in highways or roadway infrastructure.

Non-motorized modes

Rarely discussed and even more rarely funded are non-motorized transportation modes like biking and walking, which nonetheless could play a growing role in the national transportation system if political actors made an effort to emphasize them in planning and funding. Between 20 and 40 percent of all trips in European countries are conducted by cycle or by foot, and this is a model a federal transportation policy could emulate if the political conditions were right.

In the Republican Party platform, however, these modes are dismissed as outside of the federal purpose. The document recommends that “bike-share programs, sidewalks, recreational trails, landscaping…” be no longer funded through the federal transportation program. The document notes that “these worthwhile enterprises should be funded through other sources,” which, based on the platform’s overall tone, suggests that the states should take up the cause.

Ms. Clinton’s campaign policy presents an entirely different message, noting that “she will also support bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure—reducing carbon emissions, improving public health and safety, and further providing Americans with affordable transportation options.” Given Ms. Clinton’s overall campaign message supporting a continuation of Barack Obama’s presidency, it seems likely that this could come in the form of TIGER grants and an emphasis on multimodalism in other grants.

Climate change

Transportation accounts for about 20 percent of world carbon emissions from fuel, and while the U.S. has made substantial progress over the past few decades in improving the efficiency of household appliances, electronics, lighting, and power plants, the transportation industry continues to be a major polluter. The Obama Administration has required significant increases in automobile fuel economy, which is an important step, but more action is needed if the U.S. is to reach the goals it agreed to as part of last year’s Paris agreement.

The Democratic platform integrates climate change as an essential issue (the “climate challenge,” as the document calls it) throughout, and the language is particularly strong in the sections related to transportation. The party notes “we will protect communities from the impact of climate change and help them to mitigate its effects by investing in green and resilient infrastructure… We will transform American transportation by reducing oil consumption through cleaner fuels, vehicle electrification increasing the fuel efficiency of cars, boilers, ships, and trucks. We will make new investments in public transportation and build bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure across our urban and suburban areas.” The goal is to “reduc[e] greenhouse gas emissions more than 80 percent below 2005 levels by 2050.”

While the Republican Party has been resistant to acknowledge the existence of climate change at all in recent years, this year’s platform strikes a somewhat softened tone, nothing that “climate change is far from this nation’s most pressing national security issue.” While seemingly recognizing that global temperatures are rising, the platform suggests that the answer is to do nothing about it; there is no mention of the role of transportation in increasing pollution. In addition, the platform seems to encourage the further use of polluting sources for powering the increasingly electrified transportation system, noting that “the Democratic Party does not understand that coal is an abundant, clean, affordable, reliable domestic energy resource.”

Project management

Both Ms. Clinton’s policy language and the Republican platform suggest they plan to streamline permitting to reduce transportation construction costs. The Republicans specifically note that they would “reform provisions of the National Environmental Policy Act.” Neither has been particularly specific on those reforms, however.

The Republicans, who rarely sympathize with organized labor, emphasize a “repeal of the Davis-Bacon law,” which requires federally supported projects to pay workers “prevailing wages,” that are often quite a bit higher than the wages paid to non-union workers. Democrats, on the other hand, “support high labor standards… and the right to form or join a union.”

One item of note is the “Buy America” rule that most federal transportation projects include and which, in essence, requires that most components of a construction project be made in America, and which, in some cases, increases costs and may reduce quality. During his speech in support of Mr. Trump at the Republican National Convention, New Jersey Governor and Trump campaign supporter Chris Christie criticized Ms. Clinton for not supporting Buy America. It is true that Ms. Clinton and President Obama did, in fact, oppose a Buy America provision, but it is also true that, confusingly, Mr. Christie himself vetoed legislation related to Buy America. Even so, both parties have supported Buy America in the past and are likely to do so into the future.

How about the other parties?

Recent polls suggest that the candidates of the Democratic and Republican parties would collect more than 80 percent of the vote if the election were held today, and no third party has ever won a U.S. presidential election. Nevertheless, I would be remiss to ignore the Green and Libertarian parties, whose candidates could play an important role in the 2016 election.

The rather short Libertarian Party’s platform, approved in May, says nothing about transportation directly. The party “call[s] for the repeal of…all federal programs and services not required under the U.S. Constitution” and states that “governments should not incur debt.” Each of these clauses suggest that a Libertarian government would push for the elimination of all but “post roads” (which are included in the Constitution’s Article I, Section 8). Based on this, the Libertarian Party led by presidential candidate Gary Johnson would not support federal loan programs such as TIFIA or federal support for mass transit.

The Green Party platform takes a significant stand in favor of investment in mass transit and other “ecologically sound forms of transportation that minimize pollution and maximize efficiency.” The Green Party, led by presidential candidate Jill Stein, would also “place a moratorium on highway widening,” “eliminat[e] free parking,” and “make streets, neighborhoods and commercial districts more pedestrian friendly.”

Photo at top: From Flickr user Colleen P (cc).

Congress Elections Infrastructure President

The Vote 2012

» A change in power in Washington will affect federal commitment to sustainable transportation, but so will local ballot measures.

The first two years of the Obama Administration, accompanied by Democratic Party control of the U.S. House and Senate, produced significant new investments in transportation projects nationwide. Over $10 billion was distributed to intercity rail projects across the country, new funds were devoted to streetcar and bus rapid transit lines, and the government began an unprecedented period of cooperation between the Department of Transportation and the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Since early 2011, however, much of this progress has been stalled thanks to a stingy U.S. House newly controlled by the Republican Party. Their leadership, both in the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee and the Budget Committee, has promoted a significant decrease in funding for alternative transportation. A House committee voted in favor of legislation that would eliminate the guaranteed distribution of gas tax revenues for transit; the full body repeatedly voted against high-speed rail investment; and previous requirements for states and localities to invest in pedestrian-oriented projects have been scoffed at.

Mitt Romney’s decision to select Paul Ryan, head of the House Budget Committee, suggests that, if he were elected, he would pursue a similar significant reduction in spending on transportation. Barack Obama has campaigned, on the other hand, in favor of transferring funds currently being spent on the war in Afghanistan on “nation building at home,” or improved infrastructure in the U.S.

But President Obama’s advocacy of a large transportation bill in 2011 and 2012 was ignored by Congress. Only in the summer of 2012 were Democrats and Republicans in the House and Senate able to compromise on a two-year transportation bill that maintained previous levels of investment, largely on the back of deficit spending. There is little evidence that there is any source of new funding for transportation projects that will acquire bipartisan support.

Polls indicate that President Obama is likely to win reelection, Democrats will keep the Senate, and Republicans will keep the House. These conditions will probably prevent the federal government from increasing investment in alternative transportation over the next two years. We’ll likely be at a stalemate.

Fortunately, measures also on the ballot in many cities will play a big role in determining the future of America’s transportation investments. Below is a summary of the major measures up for vote. It is not an exhaustive list, only including transit spending in major metropolitan areas; it does not include proposals to expand investment in highway infrastructure, such as Arkansas’ Issue 1, which would distribute about $1.3 billion to new four-lane roadways across the state. For a full list, see the Center for Transportation Excellence.

Follow me @ttpolitic for live coverage. On another topic, you may also be interested in the op-ed on the home mortgage deduction I co-authored with Professor Lawrence Vale in last Wednesday’s New York Times.

Round-up of local ballot measures (and one mayoral election) that will affect transit projects nationwide. Updated with results 9 AM Wednesday

1. Alameda County (California) Measure B1 : Failed with 65.5% voting in favor (needs 2/3)

This county, across the Bay from San Francisco and incorporating the cities of Oakland and Berkeley, among others, is proposing a 30-year extension of its existing transportation sales tax. The $7.7 billion expected to be collected over the period will be distributed to transportation improvement projects, with about half going to public transportation and 39% to roads. 24% of overall funding will be distributed to transit operations and maintenance and a significant amount diverted to transit capital projects, such as the long-sought-after Dumbarton Rail project, BRT corridors, and infill stations along BART.

About $400 million in tax revenues will be distributed to the BART to Livermore expansion project, which is likely to increase sprawl in the eastern sections of the Bay Area as it improves transit access to the Livermore Lab, for better or worse.

2. Arlington County (Virginia) Bond : Passed

This (increasingly urban) suburb of Washington, D.C. is asking voters to approve a $32 million bond to be spent on transit, roads, bike, and pedestrian projects. About half will be spent on fleet and capital improvements for the region’s Metrorail network. Over the past five decades, the County has been a very responsible custodian of its transportation network and invested in projects that have encouraged transportation alternatives.

3. Clark County (Washington) Sales Tax : Failed

Vancouver, Washington is just adjacent to Portland, Oregon and is expected to welcome an expansion of the latter city’s light rail network in the next few decades thanks to a new crossing over the Columbia River. A 0.1% increase in the existing sales tax will provide funding for light rail and bus rapid transit operations in the Fourth Plain Corridor, which extends from Vancouver’s downtown.

4. Honolulu (Hawaii) Mayor’s Race : Caldwell (pro-rail) Wins

More than any other city in the country, Honolulu’s transit future depends on this mayoral election. The city has a more than $5 billion elevated metro rail line under construction that is expected to carry more than 100,000 riders a day thanks to a corridor that serves most of the city’s major destinations. The project has been under development for a decade, has assurances of federal funding, and has the support of locals thanks to previous approvals of a dedicated tax to pay for the line. Candidate Kirk Caldwell, who has previously served as acting mayor, is supporting the project.

But opponent Ben Cayetano argues the rail line is a waste of money and that funds could be better spent on bus rapid transit corridors that would be less visually intrusive than the rail line. He claims (without much evidence) that the city could reorient federal funding into such a project and serve as many people. He has promised to shut down the line’s construction if he is elected.

5. Houston (Texas) Sales Tax Diversion : Passed (Diversion continues)

Since 2003, a quarter of Houston’s 1% transit sales tax is redistributed to local communities under the General Mobility Program. This effectively allows cities to build roads ith  money that was originally supposed to be directed to bus operations and light rail expansion. The diversion of funds was initially supposed to end in 2014, but voters are being asked whether they want to extend the diversion until 2025.

While transit advocates argue the policy is depriving the city’s public transportation network of desperately needed funds, local mayors argue they need the money to continue their normal operations.

6. Kansas City (Missouri) Streetcar

Kansas City is planning a $100 million streetcar line that will connect destinations downtown. Unlike many other cities, locals here are planning to pay for the project mostly out of local funds. Specifically, about 700 downtown residents are being asked whether they are willing to pay special assessments and a 1¢ sales tax for the privilege of funding the streetcar.

The mail-in ballot is not due back until December 11, so we’ll have to wait a bit longer to hear back about these results.

7. Los Angeles (California) Streetcar

Like Kansas City, L.A. also expects local residents to consider paying a dedicated tax to construct a streetcar line. The mail-in ballot will fund a project that connects with the region’s subway and light rail networks and serves the biggest destinations in downtown L.A. There is some question as to whether the project is duplicative of existing services.

Citing Portland’s experience, many proponents of investments in streetcar lines argue that the systems can play an important role in encouraging economic development and improving property values. The local taxes proposed in L.A. and Kansas City are a test of whether property owners in those cities are willing to bet on that concept.

8. Los Angeles (California) Measure J : Failed with 64.7% voting in favor (needs 2/3)

Fresh off the passage of Measure R in 2008, L.A.’s Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa is proposing extending that half-cent sales tax from 2039 (when it was supposed to expire) to 2069. This extension will allow L.A. County to use projected revenues far into the future to pay for transit and highway investment projects today. If passed, the measure will make it possible to complete many of the region’s major mass transit projects, including a subway to UCLA, an airport link, and a downtown connector, far more quickly than originally planned.

9. Memphis (Tennessee) Gas Tax : Failed

This city’s leadership is promoting a unique approach to improving funding for the area’s public transportation system, MATA. By implementing a local tax on gasoline equivalent to 1¢ per gallon sold, the city will be able to raise between $3 to $6 million for transit. Specifically, funds will go to expanding service on 8 bus routes and the downtown trolley.

10. Orange County (North Carolina) Sales Tax : Passed

Last year, voters of Durham County, Orange County’s neighbor to the east, approved a half-cent sales tax, dedicated to funding transit. The two counties, part of the broader Research Triangle region, plan to significantly improve bus services and construct new light and commuter rail lines. If Orange County’s residents approve the tax, about $661 million will be collected over the next thirty years, about $418 million of which will be devoted to a light rail line connecting the University of North Carolina Hospital in Chapel Hill and downtown Durham.

11. Richland County (South Carolina) Sales Tax

This county, whose seat is Columbia, the state’s capital, is asking its voters to consider the imposition of a one-cent sales tax that will fund roads, greenways, and bike lanes. The tax is expected to raise about $1.1 billion over 22 years, of which $301 million, or about one quarter, will be spent on improving bus service on the region’s Central Midlands Regional Transit Authority. About $656 million will be spent on local roads.

12. Virginia Beach (Virginia) Light Rail Advisory Vote : Passed

Fresh off the success of the new light rail line in neighboring Norfolk, Virginia Beach is considering whether to extend that line into the city and perhaps all the way to the waterfront. Citizens are being asked whether they approve of the idea or not, but the city council, advised by this citizen input, will make the final decision on whether to pursue the project or not.

Image at top: Rendering of proposed Kansas City Streetcar, from KC Smart Moves

Elections Honolulu Metro Rail

Honolulu’s Rail Project Back in the Crossfire This Fall

» Front runner in mayoral contest opposes rail project. But it’s already under construction.

In 2008, Honolulu’s citizens approved the construction of a new high-capacity rail line that would provide quick public transportation along the city’s coastline. The $5.3-billion, 20-mile project is one of the largest in the nation, but it is backed by a steady source of local revenues and the almost definite promise of a federal New Starts capital grant that will cover about a third of costs. Moreover, it has held the support of the city’s leaders consistently since 2005, when pro-rail Mayor Mufi Hannemann entered office. The project broke ground last year.

After the mayoral primary earlier this month, however, the project’s future is decidedly up in the air. Current mayor Peter Carlisle, a major supporter of the project, received only 23% of the vote and will not make it to the second round. On the other hand, former Hawaii Governor Ben Cayetano received 45% of the ballot; he has made his opposition to the rail project one of the primary arguments of his campaign; he has promoted the implementation of a bus rapid transit system instead. In the second round this November, Cayetano will face former city manager and rail supporter Kirk Caldwell, who received 29% of the vote.

Caldwell faces an uphill climb in his effort to convince the city’s citizens to vote for him and keep the rail project going. Not only did he receive a small percentage of the vote (though the low primary turnout might be a factor), but the city council is wavering on its support for the line. A lawsuit raising questions over environmental reporting is in court this week. The rail line’s elevated guideways — which have been a point of criticism for the project for years — continue to raise public fears about the project’s suitability to the city’s natural beauty. And recent polls have showed than about half of the population thinks the program should be stopped.

Mayor Carlisle, now a lame duck, says he will “do everything [he] can to get rail far enough along so that it cannot possibly be stopped,” but Cayetano election would certainly raise questions about whether the line has the local support necessary to finalize federal grants — particularly if anti-rail former Governor Linda Lingle becomes the state’s newest U.S. Senator this fall. Cayetano claims that he will use construction contract termination clauses to cancel the program. The whole situation is a reminder of the paralyzing indecision and backtracking that too often marks U.S. politics. Will Honolulu’s rail project replicate the story of the ARC tunnel, New Jersey’s new rail connection to New York that was cancelled in 2010 by Governor Chris Christie after construction had begun?*

There are two problems standing in the way of cancelling the rail line, though: One, the project will provide dramatically improved transit service in a city that arguably is perfect for a major fixed-guideway transit line of this sort; and two, the project is already under construction and billions of dollars have already been committed — more even than had been for the ARC project.

Honolulu’s geography, in which a relatively dense population is mostly packed up in a two-mile wide strip against the sea, makes it ideal for a fixed guideway route of the sort being proposed. The 20-mile, 21-station automated rail project will allow people to get from Kapolei, on the west side of Oahu, to downtown in roughly 45 minutes, faster than is possible today at rush hour on the congested highways serving the island. Trains will serve Waipahu, Pearl Harpor, and the city’s airport. Honolulu expects the project to serve 116,300 daily passengers by 2030.

That may seem like a lot for a relatively small city (fewer than 400,000 inhabitants), but Honolulu’s bus services already attract more than 200,000 daily riders and the metropolitan area features the fourth-highest transit trips per capita in the country according to a recent study, after New York, San Francisco, and Washington — and before very transit-oriented regions like Boston and Chicago. The Census notes that around 13% of workers already use transit. Thus there is a rich base of potential riders for the new rail network.

The likely success of the system has encouraged the city to complete it as quickly as possible. As can be seen in the recent photograph at the top of this article, there is already significant construction underway, including $429 million already expended. $905 million in local funds have already been collected, about 25% of the total needed to build the line. In the context of a potential cancellation, however, the figure that stands out most prominently is the $2.029 billion already committed to construction contracts. The first segment of the system is expected to be ready for service by 2015, with an additional extension opening in 2017 and the full line completed two years after that.

There are thus many unanswered questions about the feasibility of simply cancelling the project, even if Cayetano wins the election. Will the city simply tear down the sections of the line that have already been completed? Can the money already committed to construction contractors be refunded? More importantly in terms of getting people around the island, will a replacement bus rapid transit system — running in existing “zipper” lanes on the city’s freeways — be able to attract nearly as many new passengers as the rail line would, let alone have the capacity to carry them? And is there even money available to fund such a BRT project in a reasonably short amount of time?

We don’t know. That’s the question Honolulu voters face: Is their disapproval of the current designs for the rail project strong enough to risk abandoning improved transit service for years or even decades? Are they willing to sacrifice hundreds of millions of dollars of already spent money for naught?

* For the purposes of other research, I happened upon the following quote from 1975 that I found relevant to the Honolulu situation. Clearly, matters haven’t changed much in forty years:

“The “fickleness” or inability of local governments to behave with any degree of constancy and long-term commitment raises important questions about the viability of a program of this kind under our system [i.e., the American system]. The inability of one group of elected officials to bind their successors is… complicating attainment of the Act’s objectives.”

Source: Report of Panel on Title VII New Communities Program. A Report Prepared at the Request of the Honorable Thomas L. Ashley, Committee on Banking and Currency, U.S. House of Representatives. Columbus, OH: Academy for Contemporary Problems. June 1975.

Update, 21 August: In the original version, Mr. Caldwell’s name was in the place of Mr. Cayetano’s in two places.

Image at top: Construction underway on Honolulu rail project in West Oahu, from Honolulu Rail Transit

Elections President

As the U.S. Presidential Election Begins in Earnest, a Study in Contrasts

» With Mitt Romney’s choice of Paul Ryan as presumptive Republican nominee for Vice President, the GOP is taking a clear stand on where it wants to take government. The effects on national transportation policy could be tremendous.

As chair of the House Budget Committee, Paul Ryan has assumed a prominent role in the national dialogue since the Republican Party took control of the House of Representatives at the beginning of 2011. His position there has allowed him to define the party’s position on the federal budget, the social welfare state, and, yes, even transportation. We can only assume that Mitt Romney’s decision to share the platform with Mr. Ryan implies an endorsement of the latter’s views — especially in terms of policies where Mr. Romney has not been specific.

What is obvious is that Mr. Ryan has a dramatically different view of the role of government than President Obama; indeed, his perspective on that which Washington should be concerned is a deep expression of the conservative movement’s success in pushing the GOP to the right.

In matters of transportation, this attitude would steadily decrease the role of the federal government in sponsoring infrastructure projects, especially those that cannot be sponsored entirely through user fees. It would discourage the consideration of negative externalities, such as pollution and congestion, in deciding what subsidies should be provided for alternative transportation — because its political ideology opposes government subsidies altogether. It would dismantle enforcement of federal environmental regulations, especially those that recognise climate change, and encourage the privatization of public services such as transit systems or parking meters. These are the very tangible implications of a Romney-Ryan presidency.

Mr. Romney’s platform provides no indication of his views on transportation or other urban issues. Though as governor of Massachusetts between 2003 and 2007 he was a moderate on these issues, Mr. Romney has has made no attempt to discuss them at length during the campaign other than saying that Amtrak should be privatised.* Mr. Ryan’s past actions, therefore, speak loudly.

We can best examine Mr. Ryan’s views by reviewing his voting record and analysing the budgets he proposed in his leadership position in the House.

On transportation, Mr. Ryan voted against every piece of transportation legislation proposed by Democrats when they controlled the lower chamber between 2007 and early 2010, with the exception of a bill subsidizing the automobile industry to the tune of $14 billion in loans in December 2008. This record included a vote against moving $8 billion into the highway trust fund in July 2008 (the overall vote was 387 to 37), a bill that was necessary to keep transportation funding at existing levels of investment. Meanwhile, he voted for a failed amendment that would have significantly cut back funding for Amtrak and voted against a widely popular bill that would expand grants for public transportation projects. He did vote in favor of the most recent transportation bill extension.

Mr. Ryan’s views on the future of government in general are evident in the budgets that he has prepared as head of the Budget Committee for fiscal years 2012 and 2013, neither of which have been implemented as they conflict with proposals from President Obama and the Democratic Senate. These budgets, which are founded on the principle that the U.S. government must shrink considerably, would alter the American safety net massively through a dismantlement of Medicaid by handing it out as block grants to states and a privatization of Medicare. An analysis of the budget by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities shows that 62% of budget cuts would come from programs that benefit low-income Americans. All this while providing the wealthy a huge tax break.

The biggest cuts of all, however, would go to “discretionary” elements of the budget, including defense and programs like transportation, which Mr. Ryan wants to keep to 3.75% of the GDP, down from about 12.5% today.** The consequences would be dramatic. This is how Mr. Ryan’s fiscal year 2012 budget describes the Republicans’ goals for transportation:

“This budget anticipates that Congress can keep the Highway Trust Fund solvent without additional general fund transfers or increases in the gasoline tax by consolidating dozens of separate highway programs that GAO has identified as duplicative. This will help focus every dollar on pursuing a targeted and cohesive national transportation policy.”

Translation: All Department of Transportation programs that are not user-fee funded (like TIGER, high-speed rail, and perhaps even transit capital funding) would be eliminated. And ground transportation spending would be limited to revenues from fuel taxes, which he would not increase. Overall, DOT outlays would decline from $95 billion overall in 2011 to a low of $66 billion in 2016, rising to only $72 billion by 2020. As House Republicans showed with H.R. 7, their proposed transportation bill that would have eliminated the mass transit account of the highway trust fund and eliminated aid for bike and pedestrian projects, they are willing to sacrifice non-automobile transportation programs in favor of establishing a “targeted and cohesive” policy, which in this case appears to mean roads-only.

In contrast, President Obama’s proposed budget would expand transportation expenditures massively over the next six years, with a particular focus on intercity rail and public transportation. Under his budget, federal expenditures going to transit and rail would increase from 22.9% of transportation funding in 2013 to 35.7% in 2018; under Mr. Ryan’s program, they could decline to almost nothing, since transit cannot pay for itself using user fees, like it or not.

Reihan Salam argues that Mr. Ryan is simply charting the general path that the GOP wants to take — “toward smaller government, lower taxes and more freedom” — and that “there would of course be negotiation over the size of spending cuts and over revenue.” But in a time when the state of the nation’s built infrastructure is miserable, a negotiation over cuts is entirely the wrong discussion to be having, especially when state governments have not shown themselves willing to increase transportation spending; the argument we should be having is how much federal spending on transportation should expand.

Mr. Salam is convinced that Mr. Ryan “has always been careful to note that his support for entitlement reform flows from a deep commitment to preserving America’s social safety net,” but massive cuts to public transportation will not aid the poor and urban dwellers even if the hopeful vice president has a “deep commitment.” His budget would be a death blow to many millions of Americans who rely on transit to get around everyday because they have no other options — not to mention the many millions more who do, but choose to take transit and in such aid the nation in cutting congestion and pollution.

This campaign will be played out on issues that are far more important than federal transportation subsidies, of course. But we should be clear about what direction the United States may head after November’s election.

The Democrats have a choice: Accept Mr. Ryan’s commitment to undermining the role of government by agreeing that “things need to be reformed,” just with more moderation than Republicans would allow; or projecting a strongly held view of the importance of the role of government in American society. The fact is that significantly improved transit systems in the nation’s cities will require increasing federal investment, and that simply will not happen if Mr. Ryan gets his way.

Postscript: I’d simply like to quote Christian Wolmar’s nice commentary on the very successful London Olympics, as it feels relevant to this column:

“It is, though, worth stressing that these were the public sector games. They were bid for by the public sector, won by the public sector, organised by the public sector, paid for by the public sector – oh you get the picture. But there is more: the security ended up being rescued by the public sector and relied on public transport – organised and paid for by the public sector, even if at times provided by private companies… The whole event was a celebration of the way that people get together, form governments which then run things for the people, and shows that government is not something that necessarily we want less of, the favourite mantra of Romney and Ryan.”

* In part because the cities are largely the domain of the Democratic Party (other than in local races, the GOP does not make much of an effort to promote legislation that woud aid urban areas) and thus are rarely contested in national elections. Ironically, Mr. Romney’s father, George Romney (who was Governor of Michigan and ran unsuccessfully for the Republican nomination for President in 1968) was a persistant advocate for aid to the cities and was appointed by President Nixon to head the Department of Housing and Urban Development, where he fought unsuccessfully for increasing housing aid for low- and moderate-income families before resigning in early 1973.

** Romney’s proposed budget, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, would shrink non-defense discretionary funding from 3.9% of GDP on average to between 1.1 and 1.6%, a massive reduction.

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.