Politicizing transit even more

When I started out at the transportation rodeo about 20 years or so ago, I thought–young, green person that I was—that transit had gotten as politicized as it was going to.

Boy howdy, I was wrong, eh?

Exhibit 1: New writing from Heritage Foundation’s Wendell Cox which is a rejoinder to a rejoinder from transit advocate Todd Littman criticizing their report “Washington’s War on Cars and the Suburbs.”**

Exhibit 2: Yonah Freemark of the aply named TransportPolitic breaks down rural Republicans, voter density, and their opposition to transit funding at the Federal level.

Freemark does a nice job of explaining the persistent Federal problems surrounding transit budgeting. But I think this round of budgetary politics is a bit different than before. For instance, the I doubt that it was simply by chance that two high profile Republican governors, both with respectably sized urban areas in their states, turned down Federal funding for high speed rail.

In times of budget crisis, I do think its fair to put transit and highways on the table for cuts—I don’t value them more than I value K-12 education, for example, and certainly K-12 has gotten slashed. With the HSR money turndown, there is every chance that that the states who did so will either regret it–or have a chance to gloat.

The Big Dig serves as a bit of an example. At the beginning, everybody associated with it looked like geniuses. Free money from the Feds! By the end, with the cost over-runs, the project voraciously raged through the Massachusetts budget like wildfire, consuming funds for transit and highway projects alike. Now that it’s done, and there’s millions and millions of dollars of new downtown Boston real estate on the table, there’s money to be made a by select group, and people feel like geniuses again.

It’s reasonable ask why city dwellers should pay farm subsidies, and it’s reasonable to ask why places like Los Angeles and New York and Chicago–with their tremendous tax bases—can’t pay for their own public transit if public transit is so wonderful for the city. I actually don’t have an answer for why Federal funds are so necessary for transit–for HSR, the case is clearly more like highways, and there is an argument to be made for connectivity (network externalities) that it’s harder to make for local transit service at the Federal level.

Cities are not in a budgetary position where they can ignore the financial risks of both building and operating (which always belied the free money perception) transit even with the Feds kicking in on the capital portion. They need to think twice about what they are building and proposing. This isn’t boomtime when we can afford to be building transit that doesn’t capture riders on the hope that 10 years from now, the riders will come.

**I just hate overblown metaphors around war. The war….on obesity! On drugs! On gummint waste! On this. On that. And yet, few Americans spend any time discussing the real actual wars we are in, where real actual people are dying.