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.

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