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Category Archives: Government

Cuomo’s State of the State: Platitudes and Pragmatism

If you’re unfamiliar with the tangled mass of hair in a drain pipe that is New York State and New York City’s infrastructure funding mechanisms let me start you off by explaining that almost anything you use to get to work in the morning that is stamped with an italicized “MTA” is the property of the state of New York. Funds for subways, buses, and regional rail are all doled out by Albany which means the money can sometimes, um, find its way into projects that don’t have much to do with public transportation. It’s a delicate relationship, and maybe the only one where the State House has more leverage than Gracie Mansion.

Governor Cuomo’s State of the State address comes little more than a week after the swearing in of New York City’s 109th mayor, democrat Bill De Blasio. It’s the first time we received a public view of how their platitudinal visions for the region will mesh and, thankfully, Cuomo dedicated a not insignificant balance of his speech on infrastructure development. (The speech touched on transportation issues without getting wonky; if you want the fuller plan [and I recommend it] you can check out the SotS booklet.) He concentrated on two topics: the airports and the Bronx.

(Before we go on, yes, his decision to endorse the construction of an interstate highway connector in the great frozen north of the state smacks of pandering to people who are nutty enough to live near the Canadian border.  StreetsBlog covers it much better than I could hope to here.)

Cuomo’s espousal of an MTA plan to route New Haven line trains from Penn Station through the East Bronx while adding four new stations in under served communities in the process is a welcome start the year. The four locales that the MTA plans on adding stations to in the Bronx—Hunts Point, Parkchester, Morris Park, and Co-op City—don’t currently have transit access to Manhattan and adding the station stops could help spur some economic growth just by improving access to business districts on the island. Giving Metro-North trains a west side Manhattan terminus also means that commuters can potentially lop time off their morning and evening commutes and balance subway loads between the lateral sides of Manhattan.

homemap 11 2011 Cuomos State of the State: Platitudes and Pragmatism

(Oh, about those subways—well Cuomo didn’t offer up any plan to improve on the claustrophobic hellscape that is Penn Station during his speech. By shifting commuter loads from the east to the west side, you’re also putting pressure on an already dangerously overburdened Penn Station. Giving south bound commuters access to the different trains on their commutes is great but only if you can build out capacity in the stations, otherwise you’re just packing a lot more people into an already full [and shitty] sardine can.)

The plan isn’t transformative—the rush hour headways would be on par with the Q train I have to take in the morning, which is better than expected—but non-highway capital projects are getting rarer which means we need to stop holding our noses at pragmatism. Penn Station access is at least a little push back towards ambition.

Cuomo’s other transportation talking point hit a little closer to home. (And be warned: This is going to get a little Live Journal all of a sudden. Also this is a story about Newark which isn’t one of the airports Cuomo is talking about but whatever, this is Radials not the Times.) My girlfriend and I were on our way to Florida for a wedding last week and decided that we had enough time to hop NJTransit from Penn Station to Newark Liberty. Penn Station wasn’t as much of a terribly clusterfuck as I was used to and, even though the NJTransit train was packed to the point that I had to move out of the way whenever our conductor wanted to make a breathy, adenoidal announcement about station stops, we got to the Air Train station without much incident.

We come down the escalator into the waiting area for the Air Train (it’s a monorail, imagine something slightly shittier than Disney World’s) and it’s packed, probably a good 8 or 9 people deep. It’s never crowded. Newark is a very busy airport but the majority of customers would rather pay cab fare than the $20 you shell out for a train and Air Train ticket. It turns out one of the rails is broken—probably because it’s cold and monorails don’t work in the cold (?). Oh well, another perfectly good one is still going—though it’s moving kind of slowly and pulls into the station and some red-jacketed man is yelling “this train will not be returning to the terminal.”

ewr airtrain Cuomos State of the State: Platitudes and Pragmatism

Like Disney World, but much shittier.

For people who have never been to the Newark Airport Air Train station: there is no regular exit. Sure, you can trip the emergency doors and honestly no one really cares about them so that’s always an option but other than that there is no way to get out of the Newark Airport station without getting on another NJTransit train and getting off somewhere down the line. It is the most boring purgatory on earth.

So we wait, assuming the powers that be of Newark Liberty International Airport can’t possibly be dumb enough to 1) shut down the only transit link to their airport on a Friday evening at 6 PM and 2) not have any contingency plans like, oh, a fucking bus, to alleviate such a situation. Eventually, I get some valuable information from a young, also red-jacketed woman about a single bus that was coming to bring customers to the terminal. Naturally, being savvy ass holes, my girlfriend and I grab our stuff and wait by the only exit in the waiting area with the tacit understanding that if there is going to be a bus it is going to be outside of this door since the people designing this station were apparently close students of the Thermopylae school of architecture.

Needless to say we got on the bus while some 19 year old backpackers heading to France cried their eyes out because they were going to miss their hostel check in. Tough luck, kids.

The infrastructure connecting New York to its airports is godawful. There is no one seat ride to JFK and only a narrow band of the city has direct access to La Guardia via transit. I don’t agree with Gov. Cuomo’s assertion that somehow airport experience has a one to one relationship with tourism in New York City (people are going to come here no matter what) but there is a vast amount of ground to catch up on as far as logistics and convenience are concerned and Cuomo at least paid lip service to reestablishing both airports as main cargo hubs which means he’s also, hopefully, thinking of giving freight policy, an ugly but necessary sector of the economy, some much needed public light.

These are not sexy topics. It’s not a new subway system connecting currently hot neighborhoods or high speed rail that can get you from Grand Central to Syracuse in 20 minutes or, like, a fucking Hyperloop or something, but the improvements are, for lack of a better word, thoughtful. You don’t see balanced takes on wonkish topics from these sorts of speeches because politicians are too busy spouting platitudes about job creation and growth and pubic safety. Gov. Cuomo somehow found time to do both.

Bridge and Tunnel Politics

When news was going around this morning that one of Gov. Chris Christie (R-NJ) top lieutenants  have been behind a politically motivated closure of two lanes on the George Washington Bridge, I thought back to a presentation about redundancy in infrastructure given by Metropolitan Waterfront Alliance. This was a few months after Sandy, when the only way to get to work for some people was by ferry and everyone was reminded that New York was, in fact, a city with significant waterways. The ferry was a novelty until you needed it, a way to ironically get from Williamsburg to DUMBO until a hurricane knocked out subway stations wholesale. Shuttering two lanes on the GW was terrible because people didn’t have any other choice but to sit in traffic.

There’s also an argument here for the fragility of infrastructure. A political operative given the right environment can make your commute hell just like an ill-timed blizzard. The situation in New Jersey is interesting but sort of brutal: Gov. Christie’s staff allegedly felt that Fort Lee mayor Mark Sokolich, a democrat, deserved some payback for not endorsing the governor for reelection and thus padding Christie’s bipartisan credentials (Bridget Anne Kelly, Gov. Christie’s Deputy Chief of Staff, simply wrote “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee” to David Wildstein at the Port Authority who responded “Got it.” It honestly sounds like some sort of Simpsons plot line or the stupidest SimCity disaster ever.) Whether Gov. Christie knew about it or not isn’t really that important in this context—though it should be said he did select a high school friend to manage the New Jersey end of the Port Authority, the interstate body that manages the bridge—because what’s more immediately troubling is that he is telling commuters that they get to work or school based on the whims of politicians under his control. Infrastructure is a powerful thing to control and has an amazing amount of built-in leverage. What Gov. Christie’s associates did is simply machine politics for the suburban age.

There’s not much we can do about this except laud the Wall Street Journal for investigating Mayor Sokolich’s allegations—he sensed something amiss when the Port Authority would not return his calls about the ostensible traffic study being conducted without warning on the GW—and hope that people remember this after the news cycle forgets it. Oh and be grateful that some politicians are still dumb enough to think their private emails are somehow, well, private.

Why a Sales Tax on Gasoline Makes More Sense than a Vehicle Miles Traveled Fee

gas pump 1024x768 Why a Sales Tax on Gasoline Makes More Sense than a Vehicle Miles Traveled Fee

Progressive policy makers have a creativity problem. It’s not that they’re stuck in an unimaginative funk where new ideas are simply recycled old ones that include some sort of social media strategy. Rather, it’s the theory that every policy suggestion has to be revolutionary or novel, backed up by data that previously unavailable or unremarkable, and implemented by way of buzzwords and viral marketing. Basics aren’t viable anymore, which is probably why there’s such an issue getting even basic movement on pressing issues.

Transportation policy, for all its swelling influence over the past decade, might be the best example of those doldrums of creativity. Now to be fair, most of the good people who are trying to strike a better balance between pedestrians and cars on our nation’s roads (the scale is tipped almost uniformly towards the latter, of course) subscribe to Occam’s Razor via bike lanes and speed bumps and pedestrian plazas—there is a complicit understanding that keeping it simple works best.

I’m guessing that most people who find themselves here probably know that the Federal gasoline excise tax has been stuck at $0.184 per gallon since 1993, a charge that has lost 38% of its purchasing power in the last two decades, according to shifts in the consumer price index. Essentially, the gas tax has stagnated at levels that render its main beneficiary—the Highway Trust Fund or HTF—toothless and ineffective. We see the results in our ruptures interstate system and our crumbling bridges. Most reasonable people admit that we need to replenish the trust fund at a better clip, but there’s significant disagreement about how we do it and that’s how we get to the navel gazing of the Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMT) fee.

Listen, VMT charges are not on the same level of stupidity as Gov. Bob McDonnell’s proposed elimination of the state gasoline tax in exchange for an increased sales tax, a large chunk of which would be dedicated to infrastructure projects. That prospect is insane, not only for its regressive financial tack but also for the conceptual decoupling of driving and its associated user fee, a combination that is an ostensible pillar of American democracy. Instituting a VMT charge, however, is insane politically, financially, and organizationally. Maybe, as we’ve seen in continental Europe, there is an opportunity on the commercial side of the equation for a true user fee but unless there is a sea change in how we would potentially collect information on a given citizen’s driving record then the VMT charge is dead on the asphalt.

I think this is the point in a blog post where I should defend myself: I have no illusions about the state of privacy in this or any other country. I know my phone and credit card and computer are essentially monitoring devices and I am actually completely fine with the specter of Little Brother. I’m going to guess a lot of people don’t feel the same way but that in iterative generations that issue will continue to fade. The location-based aspect of VMT is the political concern in the immediate, but the considerable cost in ripping out a financial infrastructure and replacing it with something considerably more expensive on both capital and operating fronts is just crazy.

gaspump Why a Sales Tax on Gasoline Makes More Sense than a Vehicle Miles Traveled Fee

When you go to the pump in this country you’re paying for a given stack of interests from the actual cost of light sweet crude to the refining and distribution costs to the whims of the station owner. The last tier on that stack costs between two dimes and a couple quarters depending on the state you find yourself in—the total cost of filling the tank is a pretty simple arithmetic. With increased fuel efficiencies, what you pay for at the pump is lasting a lot longer which is, well, a good thing for you but a bad thing for the government since they depend on per gallon sales to keep the HTF afloat. This is the same slow decoupling we’ve seen with general energy costs over the last few decades: when you become more efficient, user fees get less and less accurate. Combine that with inflation eroding the value of a minor gasoline tax and you get our current transportation-related fiscal climate.

There’s a pretty simple solution here, but it didn’t gain any traction or heft until the outgoing executive director of AASHTO brought it up in a speech last month: a gas sales tax. It might seem like splitting hairs—charging by the gallon or charging by the dollar—but the switch in units might save the HTF without affecting much else. Here’s an example:

A 2013 Toyota Prius has an 11.9 gallon fuel tank. The Hess station near my apartment in Brooklyn is charging $3.85 for a gallon of regular unleaded which means you’ll drop $48.82 on a fill up from empty to full. The Federal government’s cut: $2.19. Let’s say that instead of charging per gallon, we treat gas like any other commodity and slap New York City’s 8.875% sales tax on the final price. The Federal government’s new take: $4.34. You’re paying an extra $2 when you fill up (but you’re driving a 2013 Prius so what’s $2 to a rich guy?) and the HTF is essentially doubling its current tax intake. No need for a new tax infrastructure, no messy political discourse on the right to privacy, only the indignation of people who don’t want to pay taxes in the first place.

I’ll admit that there are potential issues with the installation of a gasoline sales tax, most notably the potential effects of price fluctuations and specifically the prospect of price crashes like we saw during Q4 of 2008 and Q1 of 2009 when prices fell to an average of $1.82 per gallon. Price events like this are aberrations—the average price of gasoline since 2005 is $2.86, and the two-year mean is $3.52 (all stats from EIA), hardly indicative of any general downward trajectory. (Plus we might be running out of oil anyway which means that shit is about to get expensive.) Governments deal with shortfalls in revenues constantly, and I’d guess that whomever the next USDOT Secretary ends up being would rather have a buffer against inflation rather than price crashes.

There’s no doubt that VMT charges will continue to receive most of the press in the small corner of the internet that is transportation blogging; it has the requisite combination of novelty and tech potential that is as in vogue as you can get in planning. But policy makers are sacrificing pragmatism for trends and mistaking newness for innovation. In the end the Highway Trust Fund simply needs more money to stay viable (don’t forget: this affects transit as well) and by letting VMT charges dominate the conversation we’re ignoring the solution that’s been there all along.

The Two Lhotas

It looks like MTA Chief Joe Lhota has decided to heed the call of Republican Party bosses and toss his well-connected name into the New York Mayoral race. Lhota, who served as a Deputy Mayor under Rudy Giuliani, resigned his post as MTA chief a little more than 11 months after he was put there by Governor Cuomo making him the second MTA Chief to leave the position in three years after former Chairman Jay Walder bolted for Hong Kong in late-2011. Lhota’s riding a wave of post-Sandy laudations and is the only Republican with a considerable name recognition after the MTA handled Sandy exceptionally well. (Business owners have apparently been clamoring for him to campaign as well, but that’s a different story.) It looks like our mayoral race is pretty much set: Joe Lhota and Christine Quinn with Bill DeBlasio skulking somewhere in the background. And transit is screwed.

I actually liked Joe Lhota in his capacity as MTA Chairman—he seemed to take a lot of no nonsense cues from his predecessor and faced unbelievable challenges during the aftermath of Sandy and he deserves to reap the rewards of his success. But, then again, his tenure at MTA is a blip. 11 months makes Walder’s reign seem Caesarian in comparison and there’s plenty of merit to the argument that Lhota could enact more concentrated change through his time as MTA Chairman then a mayoral term. (We’re in an age where people are actually interested in how transportation systems work [no, it’s not just me you cynics, there are a lot of out in there included your cool neighbor Carlos] and how to make them better across socioeconomic stratums. If Lhota didn’t notice that the NYCDOT Commissioner got a damn profile in Esquire because of her progressive transportation policy and realize “Hey there’s a lot of great stuff to be done here and I don’t have to be mayor to do it” then I guess he’s a little more tone deaf than I thought.)

Fortunately, Lhota’s association with the Republican party comes at a time when New York City have moved the goal post considerably left of center on most social policy programs. While far from perfect, Mayor Bloomberg has moved the city forward on several fronts including his laudable efforts to claw back tax revenues from incomes generated in New York but collected in geographies with lighter tax burdens. He’s also been generally supportive of progressive transportation policy going so far as to introduce a congestion charge schematic that ultimately failed once upstate lawmakers got a look at it. Mayor Bloomberg has been less vocal with regards to bicycle policy, however, leaving that to the stellar team assembled at NYCDOT—his endorsement comes more from a mute neutrality, refusing to engage with the sensationalists at the Post and allowing pro-bike policy to grow outside of his direct purview.

That tack is why I’m especially worried about this crop of mayoral candidates. All of them would pass for titular Democrat in a majority of states—reading left-to-right: Quinn, DeBlasio, Lhota. However, they’ve all subscribed to similar forms of 20th century transportation thinking. DeBlasio made himself persona non grata in the cycling community by supporting an “incremental” approach to bike lane development and criticizing steps taken by Commissioner Sadik-Khan though he does have plenty of marks on the other side of the ledger; Speaker Quinn, in the minds of many transit advocates, sided with drivers after snubbing mention of public transportation in her “Transportation Plan”; Lhota is hardest to read as he’s served as Chairman of the country’s largest transit authority but is attempting to top the ticket for a party that is staunchly pro-highway. (It should be mentioned that Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer is also a mayoral candidate and, if we were choosing based on how much they would do for New York transportation, would probably be the strongest candidate.)

There’s one lost oddity about all this: New Yorkers overwhelmingly support more progressive transportation planning. They like the pedestrian plazas and bike lanes, hell, they even liked the congestion charge as long as the money was going towards improving transit. No candidate, outside of Stringer (who has, at best, an outside chance) and Lhota (who’s track record is shorter than a James Cameron marriage), has offered us a glimpse of how they would lead on transportation in New York and it’s sort of terrifying. Maybe StreetsBlog’s fear of us electing our own Rob Ford is well placed.

The Need for Strong Federal Government During City Disasters

A friend of mine in London asked how things were in New York in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. Where I live in Brooklyn there was nearly no damage: a few trees were felled by the wind, storefronts using Verizon had to start dealing in cash (though this being Brooklyn that wasn’t exactly a huge change), and there were a lot more families out in the daylight hours with most New York schools closed. The devastation in Hoboken, Long Island, Queens, and Coastal New Jersey is extensive. New York’s subway system is in dire straits with major lines still closed. Manhattan below 34th street has been dark since Monday.

At the end of my email I couldn’t help but talk about the relationship between the Federal and local governments at times like these.

At one point in my career I was paid to educate local and regional financial administrators on how they can best stretch their dollars in order to invest in infrastructure development. For non-Federal entities, innovative financing is the only way to get projects done most of the time. State and municipal governments are legally bound to balanced budgets, they are not allowed to spend money they don’t have unlike the Federal government that can run astronomical deficits without worrying about the specter of bankruptcy—though some pundits would have you think otherwise. Regional transportation and planning officials often have to go to the Federal government and apply for those dollars and, often, they’re wrapped in red tape and marked with arcane regulations on spending, management, and delivery. The Federal government is lumbering by design—if they screw up it’s taxpayer money they’ve bungled, so the process is deliberate and glacial.

With disasters like Sandy this can be a blessing and a curse. Local governments (no, not even the city-state of NYC has the coffers for independent emergency management) cannot afford to deploy every asset they have during one disastrous week. If Gov. Christie, who has been doing a spectacular job at managing a devastating natural disaster, hasn’t applied for Federal fund he would have had to choose where to put his limited resources. FEMA (and dear lord, has there ever been a Federal agency who has had a bigger reputation transformation than FEMA in the last week?) has become an essential part of the recovery landscape and, for those who would espouse the need for states to have the say in how their emergency assets are spent, does not dictate how the Federal funds are spentStates apply for the funds, FEMA gives it to them, and States use the funds where they think it is prudent.

Look, the governmental response to Hurricane Sandy hasn’t been perfect with citizens having to take charge in neighborhoods like Red Hook and the Lower East Side because of the overwhelming need for emergency services all over New York and New Jersey. But there is a serious cognitive disconnect when pundits talk about the need for stronger state’s rights during natural disasters like this. New York City and New Jersey (the most urbanized state in the country), a city with an Independent mayor and a state with a Republican governor, understand the need for a strong Federal government during harrowing events like Hurricane Sandy, let’s hope the reaction from FEMA and the entire Obama administration makes that crystal clear.

Joe Lhota’s Smart Pragmatism at the MTA

MTA Chairman Joe Lhota’s interview on this morning Brian Lehrer show (listen here) wasn’t exactly earth shattering: he talked about the potential fare hike scenarios, expressed his desire to make the MTA into the best transit system in the world (again), and offered some vague visions of the future. These interviews don’t really rise above local politics, though you’d be forgiven if you considered New York City transit policy a regional issue with national implications. Mr. Lhota was speaking to the daily riders who are worried about rising fare costs while simultaneously trying to convince them that the MTA is still one of the most effective transit systems in the world, not to mention one of the cheapest in the post-industrial world.

But then Joe threw some in this corner of the blogosphere a pretty significant bone: he talked about lengthening stations as an alternative to significant capital programs! And modernizing signal structures!

I’ll be honest that I’m not sure how lengthening stations improves service (I’m assuming Second Ave. Sagas or Cap’n Transit probably has a better idea than I do) but the fact that Mr. Lhota offered up something that is not only pragmatic but also achievable in such a hostile funding climate was sort of revelatory. Listen, everyone wants more service and better service and cheaper service, but at the end of the day that just isn’t a reality. Yes, Albany has stolen hundreds of millions of dollars from dedicated MTA coffers, and yes, City Hall hasn’t increased transit funding since the first Clinton administration, but unfortunately there is no financial capacity to do anything additive outside of the Second Ave. subway.

Modernizing the MTA with incremental improvements like fixing the signaling structure (which would make trains come more frequently for all you rabble rousers out there) is a great step in the right direction and shows that Joe Lhota understand his constraints and is able to work within them with elegance and nuance. We’re all upset about the fare hike but I’m ok with an extra quarter going towards real improvements in the system.

Now if only Albany would stop messing everything else up for transit riders we could actually get somewhere.

The Whole Cost of Driving or Why You’re Probably Paying too Much for the Subway

If you drive a car what do you typically pay for? There’s gas, insurance, the occasional trip to the mechanic, tolls sometimes, maybe some lump sum for parking if you don’t work in the suburbs. It adds up to a lot, in fact it’s actually a lot more than you’d be paying if you lived in the city and simply took the subway or rode a bike to work. (Luckily for us the American Public Transportation Association has a little online calculator that can tell you exactly how much money you’re throwing away by hopping into your Camry every day instead of grabbing BART, or Metro-North, or the MBTA or whatever your regional commuter service may be.) Sure, urban denizens might shell out more in rent and groceries (Brooklyn recently became the 2nd most expensive city in America but has a median household income of $32,000—what?) but we save a boatload on transportation costs even though the ever climbing fare schedule is actually beginning to price out the neediest communities from transit.

It balances itself out, right? Car owners have to pay out a couple thousand extra dollars every year in the form of additional expenses while city dwellers pay the higher living costs associated with having access to reliable public transportation. Drivers in major metropolitan corridors have to pay bridge, tunnel, and highway tolls while people closer to the city center have to pay fares for buses and subways. Equals peequals.

We are not equals peequals.

Public transit is a heavily subsidized industry and the related numbers are easily gleaned from budget outlays on a state-by-state basis. (Here’s a study that compares the subsidies across modal splits in NYC [PDF] and interestingly includes ferries the oft-forgot way to get to work.) For subways, New York subsidizes about a quarter of each passengers’ ride and for buses it’s about a 70% subsidy. When you get up to a commuter rail service like the Long Island Railroad the total subsidy is 88% for the average ride which is variable based on distance, unlike the other two modes. Balancing out the subsidies is simple for transit administrations: you simply hike the fares. The MTA, New York City’s public transit authority, is set to announce their new fare proposals presumably raising the regular fare from $2.25 to $2.50 which would reduce the subsidy percentage (given the same distribution formula) for subways by about 2.5% and for buses by about 6.5%. (Something that isn’t mentioned here or in the pertinent PDF is that there is a reduction in fare prices for those who purchase “bonus” or “unlimited” MetroCards, which most likely dampens those subsidy reductions.) A portion of your Federal, state, and city tax dollars goes towards funding transit even if you never ride it, a concept that many lawmakers and constituents in suburban and exurban communities are not cool with.

So if you’re an everyday driver you’re probably asking yourself, Where’s my subsidy? Why isn’t the government paying for 30% of my gas or 50% of my tolls or 70% of my Big Gulps?

Brace yourselves, drivers: they already kinda sort of do. You may consider the amount you shell out every month for driving to be exorbitant but the costs of driving (especially gasoline prices) are so artificially depressed that you are receiving an effective subsidy simply because there is no political will to hike the Federal gas tax like we hike transit fares. Car-based infrastructure is also heavily favored in the FHWA/FTA funding schemes; with the FTA (PDF) receiving $1 for every $4 FHWA (PDF) receives, not to mention the $600 billion cumulative difference between gas tax receipts (PDF) and car-based infrastructure costs.

It would stand to reason that if fare hikes are the best way to balance the transit subsidies (just kidding, privatizing transit is the best way to do that!) then increasing the cost of driving by, say, increasing the Federal gas tax by including the social costs of driving (congestion, emissions, public safety, depreciation of public infrastructure) would be the best way to balance out the cost of driving.  We haven’t had a Federal gas tax increase in this country since 1993. Just to put that in perspective the cost of a subway ride in New York and Chicago has increased by 44% (with a slated increase that will drive it to 50%) and in Boston it’s gone up by 57%—even adding a nickel to the current Federal gasoline excise tax (a relatively paltry 22% increase to $0.234/gallon) would add billions in revenue (PDF) to the USDOT budget and would go a long way towards funding the true cost of driving.

How likely are we to see a Federal gas tax increase in the next decade? Not very. There isn’t much favor for state-level gas tax increases either with only Iowa coming close to adding $0.05 to their state excise tax which hasn’t been changed since 1989. Gov. Deval Patrick of Massachusetts also attempted to raise state gas taxes by a more robust $0.19, a hike that would have raised ~$600 per year million for the state—he backed off his proposal after realizing there was almost no political will to pass such a measure. On the other hand transit agencies are almost sure to increase fares that outpace inflation out of sheer necessity, and when you price out constituents from transit there’s not much in the way of recourse; price out drivers and there’s a high likelihood of alternative transportation modes.

 

An Argument for Privatizing Transit from a Very Liberal Blogger

Access is important here at Radials. We’ve argued that lack of transit options in major metropolitan areas is a major contributing factor to urban poverty and plays a role in the uneven distribution of economic opportunities between neighborhoods in cities. We’ve talked about the differences between bus rapid transit, light rail, and heavy rail and what it means for the affected constituents. Hell, we’ve even talked about why Americans are so much better at basketball than everyone else and a big part of it has to do with access to training infrastructure. Give a community access to something positive and they’ll always benefit—you could say that’s Radials’ shorthand mantra when it comes to urban policy.

The first topic—transit access—isn’t given enough page space here though, so I’d like to offer an opinion that doesn’t really jive with my overall political philosophy (the good folks over at Market Urbanism are already typing “I told you so”): transit is probably best managed by private industry.

Before everyone lets the nightmare of a Mitt Romney-run subway system run away with them, let me explain what a private transit system would not consist of:

  • Profit

That’s pretty much it. Unless you’re Hong Kong and somehow have made a buck off transporting millions of people for $0.30 a ride you’re most likely providing transit at a loss—and for most major American markets the operational deficits can reach anywhere from 50% to 70%. (Reading about MTR Corporation Limited, the publically traded company that runs HK’s metro system and is also 74% owned by the government of HK is absolutely fascinating so if you have a minute, check out the Wikipedia page.) American transit operators are also heavily subsidized by the FTA and state entities, though many would argue correctly that the amounts distributed by the Federal government and more highway oriented SDOTs have unfairly skewed funding mechanisms towards rural transportation development, thus shoving transit systems into further debt valleys than is proportional plus no one has actually included the social impacts of driving on the country at large in the gasoline tax which means we have an artificially depressed coffer, but anyway. The transportation economist John F. Kain (UT-Austin) argues convincingly that those subsidies are actually better used to pay private operators to do what the MTA, MBTA, LACTA, etc. do currently at a heavy cost to taxpayers: provide transit.

This isn’t unheard of. Traditionally, when a government needs to build a bridge they’ll put a contract out for something called “Design-Bid-Build” which means exactly what it says: a private entity will design the bridge, bid on the contract, and build the bridge. Often they’ll add another stipulation to the contract: Operate. (There are a bunch of other combinations, such as including “Own” which means that the entity quite literally owns the piece of infrastructure.) When you get an operate stipulation in your contract as a private corporation you are entitled to toll revenues in exchange for providing maintenance and upkeep on the bridge (these are called “concession contracts”), all of which is outlined in stacks and stacks of paperwork that, if you work in any city administration office, is the bane of your existence.

This isn’t the only example: Chicago infamously privatized the Skyway; the toll roads near my family home in Orange County are all private operated; bus systems that serve the Orthodox Jewish communities in New York City are contracted out to private transportation operators. Privatization can be a scary prospect for public services, though, and the introduction of any program would need to be ironclad in its dedication to serving wide swaths of communities—the lack of profits would be filled by subsidies at lower levels than states and cities’ are currently distributing because of efficiency gains in switching from a publically operated system to a private one.

I’ll admit that there’s something unnerving for me in writing about the merits of privatizing municipal services. Orange County’s attempt to essentially privatize city government backfired famously, the aforementioned privatization of the Chicago Skyway is not necessarily popular nor effective, and transit privatization has only been applied in smaller communities save for Denver’s bus system which is 50% contracted out. It’s by no stretch of imagination a new concept—people have been clamoring for this brand of privatization for decades and there’s a renewed interest from larger cities (London is the best good example) in at least dipping their toes into transit privatization. In a climate of municipal austerity maybe it’s time to jump in with both feet.

 

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.

Why a Compromised Highway Bill Means No One Wins

With an impending vote on the Highway-Bill-No-One-Wanted slated for today we have a chance to discuss what, exactly, is coming down the barrel over the next two years and $109 billion. We’re not going to see a shift in transit funding or strategies, nor are we going to get much in the way of Federal seed funding for diverse transportation projects. (USDOT just announced the last round of TIGER grants totaling $500 million as a not-s0-subtle signal to conservative lawmakers that supplemental infrastructure funding acts as effective local stimulus.) We will see a speedier permitting process for construction projects (a Republican pet amendment) and the survival of dedicated transit funding, a concept that was inexplicably on the chopping block and may have been eliminated if the bill was voted on after a Republican victory in the November elections. Fortunately for me the venerable Tanya Snyder over at Streetsblog has covered the immediate impacts of the bill in detail which leaves me with the interesting—but ultimately theoretical—job of covering the long term impacts of a short sighted bill.

Transportation projects are typically talked about in terms of long-term horizons; everything from a new bridge to a bike sharing program can take years to design, bid, and build and the draconian bureaucracy associated with infrastructure development has been derided by everyone between Jane Fonda and Jerry Falwell. Ms. Snyder points out that this bill is essentially a reaffirmation of the status quo—essentially the best we can hope for with the current climate in Washington and the Obama administrations understandable shift away from infrastructure in an election year (as much as our cozy echo chamber likes to think to the contrary, highways and transit don’t win votes. Or useful things don’t win votes. Either way.) Snyder hits what is the most saliently cynical point of this whole process: this bill won’t change anything and for those of us who are interested in seeing a shifting infrastructure landscape it means we have to wait another two years until the Federal government joins the parade that cities like Portland, San Francisco, and New York already have a hangover from.

$109 billion is not a small sum, obviously, and I think that anyone who finds themselves here probably wishes that there was more room for a competitive bidding process on at least a percentage of those funds rather than the blind allocation that USDOT has in place right now. The lion’s share (i.e. >99%) will go to highway-and-auto-based projects which is (unfortunately and infuriatingly and shortsightedly) understandable as cars are still the economic and political drivers in this country. For those of us who thought there was potential in this bill for more accesible avenues to innovative funding mechanisms and a potentially slight shift towards alternative transportation it’s definitely a depressing situation at least in the short term.

I don’t think it’ll surprise anyone to hear that I consider the current bloom of urbanism has more than a tint of confirmation bias to it, even with the recent Princeton/America Bikes poll stating that 83% of Americans “favoring level or increased federal funding for sidewalks and bike lanes.” (Aside: there are several semantic issues I have with that otherwise very interesting poll: Princeton/America Bike’s choice of language ["Do you support maintaining or increasing the small percentage of funding that helps build sidewalks, bike lanes, and bike paths?"] strikes me as more than a little convoluted and loaded as you can easily disarm antagonistic respondents with the a squishy term like “small” and packaging those three alternatives together almost guarantees a higher positive response rate, but I digress and perhaps have a problem with confirmation bias as well.) Nationally, I would guess the embrace of true progressive transportation planning is lukewarm especially in suburban enclaves like Irvine and Colorado Springs.

This isn’t as depressing as it sounds because, well, the new vernacular in transportation is based on local projects rather than national ones—even the current pipe dream of high speed rail in this country will be resoundingly regional, not nationwide. An effective bill would present alternative routes for funding outside of the Federal structure and expand the current programs we have with the Office of Innovative Program Delivery and RITA. The one hope we can gleam from the passage of this bill is that its horizon is significantly shorter than the majority of transportation projects worth their salt and maybe, at some point, Congress will get their language to catch up to ours.