Friday, May 18, 2012

Uninspiring answers on federal transportation authorization

I was a little cranky last week when I tweeted this in response to Streetsblog DC's "Seven Questions as Transportation Bill Conference Gets Underway":
You can tell @StreetsblogDC's been inside the Beltway too long: none of these are questions that I would ask.
Streetsblog Capitol Hill Editor Tanya Snyder was gracious enough to respond to the substance of my tweet and give me a chance to say what questions I would ask:
@StreetsblogDC Will this bill reduce carnage and pollution, increase efficiency and access, and improve society, better than no bill?
Another reader, Ryan Richter, sent in his own set of seven questions, and Tanya responded to them today. Basically, the answer was: it depends what bill eventually comes out of the conference committee, if any. Tanya mentions some slight improvements in the Senate bill over the current transportation authorization, but only slight ones:
  • allows transit agencies, under some limited circumstances, to use federal funds for operations instead of just capital.
  • provides funding for TOD planning
  • would permanently restore parity between transit and parking commuter benefits
  • maintenance requirements that will help steer states away from building new highways that would only exacerbate sprawl
  • the Core Capacity Improvement Project, which would expand funding eligibility to include improvements to the capacity and functionality of existing fixed guideway systems
  • directs U.S. DOT to “achieve a balance” between rail system development and improvement of the current system
  • requires U.S. DOT to develop a long-range national rail plan, as well as regional rail plans that address implementation
  • expands the kinds of grants Amtrak can apply for (currently, Amtrak can only apply directly for high-speed projects)
  • allows Amtrak to match grants with ticket sales
  • creates a 100 percent federal grant program for Amtrak and the states to improve or preserve long-distance service
  • allows Amtrak to take over responsibility for environmental reviews
  • encourages on-time service by penalizing Amtrak’s host railroads when they are to blame for consistently late train service
These are nice, but they don't add up to much by themselves. As Tanya says, in the end, "Don’t expect this bill to radically shift the balance from car travel to anything else."

So what are the alternatives? Well, there's the House bill, which is worse in every respect. Congress could continue to pass "extenders" maintaining the same crappy gas tax and funding formulas as was passed in 1998.

What if they didn't pass anything and let the 1998 authorization expire? First of all, the gas tax would expire with it. Depending on supply and demand, either the price of gas would drop by 18.4¢ per gallon or the 18.4¢ would go into the oil company profits, or something in between. The bigger the price drop the greater the incentive to drive, but we're talking at most 5% of the price, so it probably wouldn't make that much difference.

Then, federal funding for most highway and transit projects would cease. If people wanted to pay for those projects they would have to turn to some other agency with taxation authority, which would be state and local governments and toll road authorities. In separate articles earlier this year Ed Glaeser, Lisa Schweitzer and Bruce Katz argued that this would be more efficient, effective and innovative, but Yonah Freemark points out that when given the chance, states and local governments have shown "a complete disregard for public transportation investments."

I'm not convinced Yonah is right. One of the reasons that state governments have done this is because transit advocates have tended to look to either local or federal government. Just look at Streetsblog, which has excellent local coverage in New York, LA and San Francisco, and excellent federal coverage from Tanya. But what anyone in DC can contribute is inherently limited, and there's always the pressure to file horse-race stories. When Streetsblog started their Capitol Hill blog, I thought they would have done much better to hire someone in Albany. Maybe if the federal government's nominal role in transportation policy is diminished, people would start paying more attention to what's going on in their state capitals, and things would start to change.

Even if, on the whole, it would be slightly better to pass the Senate bill or something similar, the whole thing is completely uninspiring. Why are transit advocates spending so much time and money on it? Where would we be if instead they had swung with the pendulum and made alliances with people who wanted to cut the road budget?

Earlier today, Chuck Marohn tweeted, "We need to be accepting of small failures that provide knowledge, less tolerant of large failures emerging from conventional thinking."

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