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A Conservative Argument for Progressive Transportation Policy

If you somehow find yourself making a list of buzz phrases for the Republican party chances are that somewhere between “Strong Defense” and “Traditional Values” you’ll come up with “States’ Rights”. States should be able to decide what they want to do about environmental regulations, illegal immigrants, gay marriage, abortion, etc., etc. It’s the bedrock of modern conservatism—at least rhetorically—and from time to time it proves a willing facilitator of progress in states with proportionately willing populations. You hear a lot of States’ Rights invocations on those sexy, politically salient topics from Republican lawmakers but transportation, in all its pragmatic dowdiness, doesn’t really get the same rhetorical treatment from the GOP and it’s unfortunate because it’s one section of politics that could use a healthy injection of local prerogative.

washington united states capitol washington d c dccap11 A Conservative Argument for Progressive Transportation Policy

The new Federal Transportation Bill that passed overwhelmingly on Friday—President Obama is primed to sign it into law this week—is almost identical to other bills that have passed over the past few decades: the majority of the money goes towards highway maintenance (slightly more than $40b annually), a few billion is tossed to the FTA (slightly more than $10b annually), and some scraps are left over for transportation alternatives, typically enough for a few major bidders to conduct cursory research and potentially get to project groundbreaking (some key numbers to take away: New Starts get $1.9b which means more BRT projects can get funding; MPOs get a bump from 12.5% of highway funds to 14%; Transportation Alternatives drops from $1b to $700m annually and those dollars are now eligible to be spent on things like… turning lanes. Government at work, folks. All numbers are courtesy of the amazing and prompt work over at Transportation Issues Daily and the Transport Politic.)

For a lot of us who were expecting a potentially transformational transportation bill (and there was no guarantee that one would have passed during the most recent Democratic triumvirate) the status quo is profoundly disappointing. Where’s the ambition? Where are the grand ideas? The unfortunate reality of major transportation spending is that it’s still a top down process and since alternative transportation advocates don’t have much of a lobby except for, you know, everyone who lives in a major metropolitan area there isn’t much hope for a Federal renaissance when it comes to infrastructure spending. Washington will still be distributing transportation funds to the states for the next two years, and there is an overwhelming likelihood that we’ll be stuck in the same place in 2014 with either side of the aisle fighting for an equally uninspired bill.Democrats want policies that embrace innovative and potentially economically unpalatable projects like Bus Rapid Transit and High Speed Rail while Republicans would rather target spending on unimaginative and environmentally detrimental business-friendly areas like highways. The gulf between the two wish lists has yawned wider in the last five years with political rhetoric reaching new troughs every week. There’s a chance here, albeit a small one, for a potentially unifying concept when it comes to infrastructure development: competitive funding programs.

Of course, we already have a laundry list of acronymical grants (TIFIA, TIGER, GARVEE, etc.) that are dolled out on a competitive basis, but they make up a fraction of total Federal transportation spending. The majority of funds are distributed to State DOTs based on basic formulas and, typically, those DOTs actually tack more conservative in their spending portfolios than Federal initiatives do (e.g. Missouri DOT dedicating 0.54% of their budget to “pedestrian-friendly” projects). By switching the rules of distribution to slide more towards competition and by proxy away from Federal distribution formulas you actually come up with a resoundingly conservative argument that has the potential to deliver on transformative transportation projects in a huge way.

Would Republicans take the chance on a place like Houston or Portland or Cleveland grabbing $300m from the transportation vault and spending it on improved bike and transit facilities all while snubbing the suburban road system? Would Democrats cringe at Wyoming and Utah having more control over their infrastructure fates? There are pitfalls on either side of the aisle, but at the rate Congressional approval percentages are going now, any risk they take is a good one.

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