The House Transport Bill is anti-federalist, not anti-transit

Transit advocates should thank gridlock the transport bill from the House is more symbolic than anything. It’s not going to go anywhere, not because the bill has no supporters, but because nothing is going anywhere in DC these days.

The bill a does a bunch of really unfortunate things, but the one that has the average urbanist’s undies in a twist is that the bill cuts transit, walking, biking projects off from the Highway Trust Fund, to fend for themselves in the general budgetary process at the federal level.

The whinge from the urban blogosphere is already deafening, however. HOW DARE those mean House Republicans hate wonderful transit? What’s wrong with them? They must represent suburbs.

What House Republicans are disputing in this Bill isn’t whether cities should have adorable little trolley trains and wonderful bikes lanes and capacious sidewalks. What they dispute: that the feds, and not cities themselves, should pay for them.

You know the transit fanboys around the blogosphere are writing the outraged posts now full of Richard Florida factoids about about how important cities are to America, and how cities generate 86 percent of economic value in the US, and how most Americans (80 percent) live in cities and how all that means Federal transport policy should be federal transit policy. We’re important, in sum!

However, anti-federalists see those exact same factoids as reasons that cities can afford to build their own damn transit.

But, but, but! Transit revitalizes local business and increases property values!

Then local businesses and land owners can pay for it with all the new value they get. Why should they get windfalls from federal sources?

But but but controls on local property taxes don’t allow that.

Then why should federal taxpayers pay to provide something that the locals who benefit from it most don’t want to pay for themselves?

But, but, but! Transit clears the air, helps clear up traffic congestion, and prevents climate change!

If urban drivers are causing congestion and polluting urban air, how does taxing rural drivers and taking their money for urban projects make sense? If California has a problem with too much driving, nothing keeps you from raising the state gas tax. Tax your own drivers and build your own transit.

And the circular argument goes on and on. Disagreement about whether the federal government has a role to play, and what that role should be, in the provision of urban goods can’t be reconciled with assertions about how great particular urban goods are.

LaHood hasn’t helped matters. LaHood hasn’t really understood the role he was chosen for; he seems to assume he is still running for office, and his typical MO is to play to his urban choir with blather like livability rather than go out of his way to help those not in his choir understand why projects for motorists should get the ax when motorists’ tax dollars keep the HTF afloat. His predecessors were able to progressively open the Fund to redistribution from motorists to other modes largely by doing the opposite of what he’s done: by not drawing attention to themselves or to their agendas.

I’ve always though the Secretary of Transportation should ideally be a rather boring job. But LaHood is a politician, not an agency guy, and he’s over-politicized his job by screaming as loudly as he can and stomping his way into the spotlight as often as he can, both around transit and high speed rail. In so doing, he’s thrown his agency into the tsunami of the deepest political divides in Washington.

In fairness, this bill has been a long time simmering. Republicans have never loved paying for transit out of the HTF, but LaHood’s bombastic, self-promotional, New Sheriff In Town style has thrown gasoline on the low simmering fire.

9 thoughts on “The House Transport Bill is anti-federalist, not anti-transit

  1. I do see your point, and I could even agree with it if I could see a way out of this state, local, federal spending mess that we’re in.

    However, all of the points you have against funding public transit could also be redirected towards the federal highway system. For example, the really big interstate freeways are only that big because of local commutes and not interstate travel. I-294, I-90, I-94, etc, in Chicago are quite large mainly for daily intercity/suburb commutes. If we wanted to fully separate federal vs. local dollars, those interstates should be sized/funded only for how many people make the Madison to Chicago travel, have one exit on the either end, and let Illinois and Chicago area provide the rest.

    What really needs to happen is for the various regions and levels of governments to plan for a system-wide approach for the movement of goods and people and fund however it logically makes sense. This should include air, water, freight rail, commuter rail, automobile, semi-truck, bike and pedestrian, and whatever transportation modes you can think of. I don’t have the answer, but I know that while the whole debate is revolving around who pays for it, we’re wasting money on an extremely inefficient system.

    • To be clear, this is me explaining the controversy, not personal opinions on what should happen. I am just trying to help people see that transit advocacy alone isn’t going to get them past the anti-federalists, and more verbiage about how great transit is doesn’t help here. You need an argument that suggests that federalism is warranted.

      As to the point that freeways are local, too, yes, but nobody predicted that they would be when they were built, and the Republican answer to that, I strongly suspect, is “ok, let’s get rid of the federal gas tax entirely. Almost all of the states already have their own gas taxes, so why not let them fund the whole system if all travel is local?” And in reality, that devolution was one of Reagen/Bush Seniors major goals with the highway system anyway.

      Like I said the post, nothing gets you out of this disagreement except a principled argument for why funding should flow through the feds, not devolved to local governments.

      So the Republicans would say that devolution would give you more efficiency, not less.

      • Understood.

        I think that my reply is just something that’s been churning around in my head for years now. It’s frustrating to see the discussion be about funding, when the system and metrics aren’t even set up to think about the problem clearly.

  2. Well, this certainly isn’t the only conversation that’s happening–it’s just on everybody’s mind right now since it’s an appropriations bills.

  3. I like the beginning of your post. I am not sure why it is the Sec.’s job to say why motorist projects should get the ax? I am not one to ignore the list the ills of the current Auto poor priorities:

    1. With nationwide vmt holding steady or declining new capacity should not be high on the list of needs.
    2. With less than 10 (on average) of the 30,000 transportation fatalities coming from structural collapses rescuing crumbling infrastructure doesn’t need more funding than it is getting now.
    3. The auto mode likely gets 25% to 50% of the infrastructure investment from non user funds.

    But in counterpoint the auto users pay 100% of the operating costs leading them to cover more like 90% to 95% of the capital and operating costs compared to more like 10% to 20% of transit. Take away the NY,DC and SF lines, then the environmental performance of transit may not be any better than the auto. Transit expansion, to the suburbs for transit tax justification busses, are likely one on worst polluters per passenger mile.

    Mass transit is astoundingly successful in locations where it is appropriate. In the downtown cities with population greater than 1,000,000, transit is awesome and needed program. In planning for events like the Olympics in Salt Lake and Calgary transit again delivered what no auto centric plan could even hope to match. But why wouldn’t user fares be able to pay for these important services?

    The gas tax is shrinking by the constriction of inflation because the average Jane and Joe don’t see a value proposition that is going to be delivered. Those that would receive the money such as contractors, labor unions and engineers all will tell you how important infrastructure is. I however see, fatalities rates shrinking between 5% to 10% each year, the age of the average car (over 12 yrs old) still growing (the crumbling infrastructure is not sky rocketing maintenance costs and congestion rates as measured by the TTI index are at 1995 levels.

    There is value to be created and users will pay for value, but the same old, same old is being beaten hands down by the transportation that sends emails, videos and information around the world faster than you can start your car, bus, plane or train.

  4. Get back to me when the rural areas are paying the entire cost of lightly traveled farm roads, rural mail delivery, rural electrification, lifeline telephone service, and water for irrigation. We are a nation, not a collection of feuding fiefdoms. We want food producers to be comfortable staying on the land, and we want wealth producers to be comfortable clustering in cities.

    • The anti-federalists would argue that what holds the US together is national pride, values, and and defense, not these fiscal questions where localities should have more self-determination. And, again, if there’s all this wealth getting produced in urban areas, why do the Feds need to be giving those areas money at all? And if the argument is that those places are net donors (which they are), rather than recipients, wouldn’t those places actually be *better off* eliminating the federal tax and going with a state tax? Again, these aren’t my personal beliefs about what ought to happen with transit, I’m just trying to help people come up with more than the usual thinking about how great transit and cities are. I don’t think those types of arguments are really germane to the impulse that is leading the budget battle.

      Like I said, not my personal beliefs about what should happen, so you can get mad at me if you want to, but it doesn’t really get us anywhere.

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