Part 6. David Levinson’s CityLab discussion on transit: Local funding (mic drop II)

This is last one of my reflections on David Levinson’s important contribution via CityLab on How to Make Mass Transit Funding Sustainable Once and For All.

My responses so far:

Part 1: Institutional Structure
Part 2: Competitive Tendering
Part 3: Farecards
Part 4: Capital Cost Recovery Mic Drop
Part 5: Private equity

Today we take up point 7 in his list on his list:

7. Since transit benefits local areas, it should be primarily locally funded and managed. Federal funding for transit has distorted investment to be capital intensive — favoring ribbon-cuttings for politicians — while resulting in neglect for local operations. While the rational local transit organization will take advantage of federal largesse, there is no good reason for federal involvement. Over the next few transportation legislative cycles, it is likely that federal grant programs (funding) will be transformed into loans (financing). Mass transit utilities would be better adapted to this new environment.

Ok, so I’m torn here because I am usually the only urban scholar who says openly that walking, biking, and transit advocates have overstated their claims to global benefits in trying to make a case for their slice of federal dollars, and I applaud Levinson for even saying so. Being brilliant is easy for somebody like Levinson. Being brave enough to say something this politically unpopular with the vast majority of scholars in your field? That’s a lot harder, and I’m grateful for his not leaving me to be the only one critical of my field’s claims about our entitlement to crawl into the federal taxpayers’ pockets.

That said, I’m not sure I am on board. I seriously do not know what I think here.

I ruffled everybody’s feathers with this discussion awhile ago on this blog, and I’ve published discussions on what the changes in federal pots of money mean for local transit, so I don’t feel the need to repeat myself. Here are some:

Now, why do I waffle? Well, first, many problems are local problems if you really come down to it.

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If there is no compelling need for federal transit policy, there is similarly no compelling need for housing, education, or urban development policies, either. IOW, do we want to have national urban policy in place, or do we just let 1,000 flowers bloom and say to hell with it? Most places where transit is really truly financially viable in the manner Levinson envisions are places that can, in fact, leverage the funding to build and run their own systems, and as I speculated in previous articles, might be better off so doing.

In addition, Levinson is right; passing along the capital costs to others is a recipe for an overcapitalized system.

The real pain comes in thinking about those places that don’t have deep pockets. Without difficult-to-justify federal capital subsidies, there is no Portland as it exists now, and while I die inside every time one of my starry-eyed students/philosopher-kings advocates for yet another slow light rail in Los Angeles “because Portland!”, federal subsidies have given the US truly important social experiments with transit, given how the feds shoveled out for BART, Portland, and DC’s metro. Nope it wasn’t particularly just or rational, but it sure has been interesting and transformative, and for the better. In concert with transit experiments in Europe, Asia, and South America, it’s mattered a lot to urban scholarship.

This type of risk-taking strikes me as infinitely reasonable, and while we could try to shove all that money into an “urban experimentation lab fund” and let the folks at DARPA take their whack, I’m not sure social experimentation really works like that. I think it’s a good deal messier, more incremental, and grounded in the serendipities of real life than rational planning for experimentation might be. If one of the principles of social intervention is a law unintended consequences, then some of those unintended consequences are likely to be good just like some are troubling.

It’s wasteful to some degree, and that’s irritating, but I guess I’m not that bothered by it all. I think inquiry and experimentation matters, and what happened with Portland isn’t stupid or wasteful, even if many of the people trying to copy it out of context are doing stupid things: the fact they see something real and worth replicating strikes me as valuable.

Which leads me to my point: the feds can and probably should intervene in strategic ways in cities, particularly when cities are at Portland’s scale. If we really do believe that there are normatively better ways for cities to be, then there is a role for federal governments to play in setting standards and incentives. Either that, or the nation-state is nothing but a military and monetary policy entity. Is that what we want? Or do we want federal leadership? (I think we want both metropolitan and federal leadership, and it means a rather messy trading back-and-forth, but I’ve not got an actual argument to support that inkling.)

Well, that’s all I got. My best to Levinson and the folks at CityLab for producing something interesting. The field needs more of it, and I had a great deal of fun reflecting on the piece.