Priorities

By Dogtown Commoner | Posted at 1:42 am, August 30th, 2007 | Topic: environment, cities, economics, politics

This passage from a Washington Post article speaks volumes:

Unlike federal highway funds, which states receive based on a formula and may spend as they wish, money for new transit projects is awarded at the discretion of the FTA. The agency doesn’t have much to dole out. The FTA has proposed spending about $1.4 billion on new transit projects next fiscal year, compared with $42 billion that states will receive for highway maintenance and construction, according to federal figures. More than 100 transit projects across the country are expected to compete for federal money in coming years, according to a federal report.

In deciding which projects deserve funds, FTA officials consider primarily which would attract enough riders and save them enough time to be worth the investment. They also consider the state and local governments’ ability to help pay for construction, maintenance and operating costs. Other considerations include impact on air quality, development around stations and the ability to move lower-income workers to jobs.

FTA evaluations can take years, because it rates a project — and grants permission for it to move forward — at several different points, controlling it from preliminary engineering through construction. The process has grown so complicated and time-consuming that, across the country, many local officials have begun to forgo federal money if they can secure enough local or private funds to build a project, according to a recent U.S. Government Accountability Office report.

So not only does the federal government fund highways at 30 times the rate that it funds transit projects, but they add so much red tape to the transit funding that some local officials don’t even bother to apply for it. Meanwhile, the highway money just gets doled out to all states regardless of merit, with no strings attached and regardless of the environmental impact. Because everyone knows we need more and more highways, right? And everyone knows that existing highways need to be made wider and wider to accommodate all the drivers who choose to live 40 miles away from their workplaces, right?

Of course it’s not really the federal government’s fault. The funding discrepancy is just a reflection of the perverse incentives and feedback loops that have been built into our entire system, in which people are lured to ever-more distant suburbs with promises of cheap home ownership, safe “neighborhoods” and small backyards of their own. As the housing tracts and strip malls metastasized, and large swaths of our cities become poorer, politicians naturally responded to the new reality and catered even more to the richer, more politically connected suburbs while neglecting the depressed urban cores. The criminal neglect of the people of New Orleans is just the most dramatic example of a decades-long and nationwide phenomenon.

With gas prices rising and commuters realizing that spending 90 minutes in a traffic jam every day is no fun, even in a climate-controlled SUV, perhaps interest in sensible transit is growing again. In California, the recent construction of light rail and subway lines in Los Angeles, the plans for expanded BART service in the Bay Area, and the nascent plans for high-speed rail are signs of revived attention in sustainable transportation alternatives. The Post article notes that federal funding are “rooted in outdated thinking”:

Transportation experts say the disparities between highway and transit-system funds — and how money is awarded — are rooted in outdated thinking. Highways have traditionally received more federal money because they have been viewed as connecting the country, while transit systems have been seen as serving individual cities.

“There’s still a lack of understanding of how fundamentally broken the transit program is,” said Robert Puentes, a Brookings Institution fellow.

Meanwhile, competition for that money is increasing rapidly. Many booming areas — including such traditional highway-loving cities as Phoenix, Denver and Houston — are turning to transit to curb air pollution and control their car-dependent sprawl.

“The demand for transit has never been higher,” Puentes said. “At the same time, the federal government substantially underfunds transit, so it’s very competitive to get those funds.”