quotes of the week: ed glaeser

"Conservative" economist Ed Glaeser, author of The Triumph of the City, at today's Congress for the New Urbanism plenary:

De-federalizing [US] transportation policy would help transit compete more effectively with the automobile.

He's talking about the funding methodologies imposed by the US Federal Transit and Highway Administrations, which effectively (a) federalize the transit/highway tradeoff and (b) put possibly excessive weight on near-term ridership outcomes as opposed to personal mobility outcomes, not to mention impacts on urban form.

Would block-grants to states that allow each state to determine its own highway vs transit balance be a better structure?

17 Responses to quotes of the week: ed glaeser

  1. ant6n June 3, 2011 at 11:06 am #

    How about just a federal 50/50 match for any transit project that has a cost benefit ratio better than 1.

  2. Patrick M June 3, 2011 at 11:10 am #

    No. Block grants to states move the highway/transit problem to the level of government with an even more rural bias.
    It would be better to devolve funding to metropolitan planning organizations without passing through the state level filters.
    As Aaron Renn has stated, the world generally works like this in actuality: Neighborhood-City-Region-Planet.
    States and Counties are governmental organizations fundamentally unsuited to decisionmaking for today’s economies.

  3. EngineerScotty June 3, 2011 at 12:55 pm #

    No. Block grants to states move the highway/transit problem to the level of government with an even more rural bias.
    Is that true? The US Congress, particularly the Senate, is massively gerrymandered in favor of rural interests; whereas similar arrangements in state legislatures are illegal. (State legislative districts in the US are required to represent regions with roughly equal population–legislatures where each county gets a Senator regardless of whether its population is one million or ten thousand are no longer permitted).
    It depends on the state, of course, and the distribution of political power. In many states, population (or money) is concentrated in exurban or suburban areas, and there, the needs of cities may be neglected. In other states, one or more population centers may dominate state politics (one reason that Portland, OR does well is that the Portland metro area has much weight to throw around in Salem; and is able to garner much state financing for its transit system).
    Observations about counties depend on where you are; as a county (or parish) in one state may not resemble a county (or parish) in another. Again using Oregon as an example; our counties are generally responsible for providing services (roads, police, planning) to rural areas; whereas cities generally provide these things for their residents. Other essential government services, such as local courts and elections and the recorder’s office are county business exclusively, but for the things of interest to this blog; counties in Oregon provide these things for areas which are unincorporated.
    This does, of course, lead to problems. City boundaries don’t always conform to urbanized areas; the Portland metro area has significant urbanized areas which are unincorporated. In some cases, it’s because residents want to avoid higher city taxes and have resisted annexation; in other cases it is blighted areas that no city government wants to touch. But in a regime where counties handle rural infrastructure and cities handle the urban, counties are a reasonable and useful layer of government.

  4. Alexander Craghead June 3, 2011 at 12:56 pm #

    I’d generally side with Patrick on this one. State governments are more often than not biased against urban areas and therefore not interested in funding transit that does not translate well in low density rural regions.
    Also, in the Glaeser model there are only two possibilities. First, the Feds distribute the money in grants to the states, who assign it to specific projects, or two Feds cease to collect transportation reated taxes and completely devolve funding to the states.
    If the latter, then transportation equity on a national level would be impossible, meaning poorer states will be more constrained than at present. While many — including Renn — talk about a post-national world, socially and culturally destabilizing the nation further is only going to make things harder for anyone within U.S. Borders. Being able to geographically redistribute transpirtation investments is an important tool of national policy.
    If the former, with blank check style grants to states, the system becomes worse, not better. Now th money must pass through yet one more step before being assigned to a project. It will also be nearly impossible to effectively redistribute transportation dollars equitably. In the present situation, for example, the FTA could choose to provide greater funds to projects in say Michigan than California, based on the specific merits of the projects. But if its a contest of who the Feds provide blank check block grants to, then it will be harder to defend such redistribution.
    In short, though the Federally centered funding system is unquestionably lengthy, cumbersome, and as us Oberstar fand would argue, broken, it is still a system that is better adapted to national stability, geographuc equity, and supporting urbanism over a low-density (read highways only) transportation focus.

  5. Alexander Craghead June 3, 2011 at 12:57 pm #

    Apologies for my mobile device induced typos.

  6. Cap'n Transit June 3, 2011 at 1:13 pm #

    I’m with Patrick M.

  7. EngineerScotty June 3, 2011 at 2:02 pm #

    The argument for nationalism, of course, assumes a national polity which makes wise choices–and which permits cities like, say, Atlanta (which is dominated in Georgia politics by rural and suburban interests, a fault line exacerbated by race) to implement sensible policy despite hostile state governments. We do have that somewhat; the current legal regime in Washington does include significant funds for transit–although highway dollars are even easier to come by.
    But what if future administrations or Congresses decide to shut off the pipe? There’s presently a loud and noisy faction in Congress which is aching to reject the prior political compromises that have led to the status quo, and which seeks to provide zero funding for urban transit, for various specious reasons, including an open dislike for cities and urban demographics. This same faction, while frequently preaching austerity, doesn’t hold highway spending in anywhere near the same level of contempt. There is no countervailing faction (with any significant accumulation of political power) on the left, calling for a major shift in the balance of spending away from highways. And few national politicians would dare speak of rural America with the same level of contempt that Tea Party supporters openly espouse about our cities.
    Transit did OK under prior GOP administrations because the reactionary Republican base was generally mollified by other issues. But now, we’ve got an energized (and well-financed) band of radicals seeking to significantly re-order the prevailing social and political arrangements.
    Ask yourselves: What would federal transportation policy be in a hypothetical Romney administration, with Eric Cantor replacing Boehner as Speaker, and Mitch McConnell as Majority Leader? (I won’t ask about President Palin–we’ll have far bigger problems than the local bus service were that disaster to befall the US).
    I’m not advocating for complete devolution of transportation matters to the states; though when projects (such as the Portland Streetcar) can be done faster and cheaper by not taking Federal funding, it’s a tempting thought. However, in the current environment, pretty much any large project requires federal funds for completion–simply because after Uncle Sam (and the states) takes their bite, there’s little tax money left for local governments to raise and spend on their own. Thus the focus on federal grants, which frequently distort local priorities. My preference, I suppose, would be for an environment in which (a smaller amount of) federal funding is available for projects should a locality need them, but localities have more local funds available to spend, and more projects are plausible without federal involvement.

  8. Danny June 3, 2011 at 3:28 pm #

    I can’t believe transportation advocates actually think the federal government is a good vehicle for transit funding. It is almost as if they have deluded themselves into thinking that 293 million Americans actually care about their 7 million member minority.
    So lets say that by giving funding to the Feds, they can decide what the appropriate mix of funding is. Lets just assume away the dominant fact that some 70% of the US population doesn’t EVER think one bit about transit, and say that we got lucky and federalized a 20/80 transit/road funding split. Awesome right? Well, if you live in Austin it is awesome, but if you live in New York, your life just got worse.
    It is also as if those transit advocates don’t actually believe that transit provides the benefits that they claim. If those benefits are real, then the cities have a clear incentive to seek after them, right?
    To explain, what happens when a city abandons all transit goals and just builds roads? Maybe Stockton/Modesto CA, or Mentor OH, for example. The result is:
    1) They build wide non-tax-paying boulevards to accommodate the demand for autos,
    2) They constantly have to pave and repave those roads because they get eaten up so quickly, and
    3) They never become job centers because they can’t accommodate the people-flows that are necessary to support the requirements of job centers, meaning their residents are earning their living and spending a substantial amount of their earnings elsewhere.
    In other words, the result is that those cities have higher costs and lower revenues (of course this is assuming that the transit agency isn’t as maliciously irresponsible as SF MUNI), and therefore the cities are less fiscally sound. They deal with crises more, they deal with infrastructure maintenance issues more commonly, and they never earn the prestige of other cities.
    And if cities are more responsible and decide to fund transit better, the result is the opposite: More prestige, less crisis management, have lower costs and higher revenues, etc.
    If Phoenix wants to destroy themselves while trying to prop up their unsustainable urban model, I say let them. Sure it sucks for people in Phoenix, but then again they are the ones responsible for those outcomes. So why would I ever give them a chance at forcing their disastrous outcomes on me?

  9. Digby June 3, 2011 at 5:19 pm #

    Except for a few states that already recognize the importance of transit and fund it at decent levels, block grants would probably shift transit dollars to highways.

  10. John June 3, 2011 at 5:55 pm #

    I’ll join the chorus of those skeptical that states would change the status quo. Some might (maybe California, Oregon, Washington, Hawaii, Massachusetts), but I think most would shift even more money to highways. Look at what the current governors of Florida, Ohio, Wisconsin, and New Jersey recently did with rail and transit funds. These aren’t atypical states either. I think as a group (and some individually), they’re pretty good approximations for the US as a whole.

  11. Joseph E June 3, 2011 at 6:58 pm #

    Even California and New York are unfriendly or indifferent to transit on a State level. Unless you send funding straight to cities, the current federal system is better than giving all the control to states, which are heavily influenced by special interests in favor of exurban development.
    Reforming the federal funding split and increasing federal funds for transit (and walking and biking) are the best idea under current political realities.

  12. Alex B. June 4, 2011 at 12:39 pm #

    I’m inclined to agree with those who say giving the money directly to states would be a bad thing. States, in most cases, suffer from the same problems as the nation – their political boundaries are not drawn to reflect the economic realities of the metropolitan areas that are their economic and fiscal engines.
    If you could grant that money directly to Metropolitan Planning Orgs or some other regional governance structure that better matches the overall economic reality of our urban places, that’s a better idea. However, States themselves aren’t particularly useful. They are a rather anachronistic entity, anyway.
    I’m intrigued by the idea of an infrastructure bank administering these funds – therefore freeing the bank up to disburse them based on merit and disburse them to a variety of entities, not just states.

  13. Jonathan Parker June 4, 2011 at 3:32 pm #

    My first reaction is this seems like a way to justify our inability to muster a rational, integrated transportation strategy. Maybe Glaeser has given up on this possibility and sees this as a pragmatic work-around solution. It makes sense to pass through more money to metropolitan areas through the MPOs, rather than states, but I think the other posters have alluded to the reasons why completely devolving transportation to the states could have more potential negative than positive outcomes.
    While a number of metro areas have funded a big chunk of their transit programs locally, where would these regions be without federal assistance, particularly on very large–but needed–major capital projects? Think 2nd avenue subway, subway to the sea, Honolulu, CAHSR, etc. Would those regions or states be willing to step up and fill the federal void?
    Alexander makes a great point about equity between rich and poor states. Would poor states and cities in the deep south give up on transit completely? What about “interstate” metro regions like DC, St. Louis, Chicago, Portland, etc? What about interstate HSR like the NEC, SEHSR, or the Cascades corridor? There would seem to be all manner of problems and unintended consequences with this arrangement, some of which we can’t predict.
    What about climate change? Would we be giving up on our ability, or duty, to address transport emissions as a component of a larger international carbon pricing framework?
    But beyond all of this, it just makes sense to have a national transport policy that is complemented by energy, environmental, and housing policies in a unified way designed to achieve national goals. Period. Every major industrialized nation on earth has some type of policy, but we can’t do it, so we should give up and devolve it to the states? I don’t buy it. Get the federal policies and incentives right, and we can begin to do great things like this in our metropolitan areas: http://bit.ly/lhkrd6.

  14. Jack Hope June 4, 2011 at 7:35 pm #

    In theory, from a strictly political point of view, I can see the value in simply passing transportation money to the individual states and allowing them to spend it as they see fit. The United States, as a Federal State, has always struct me as overly centralized, with a lot of overlapping jurisdictions which complicates matters considerably. If State governments in the U.S. were willing to step up and take over from areas of jurisdiction which the Federal government was reducing its role in, this could be a good thing. This applies to several areas of policy, including transportation. However, from my personal observations I see very little appetite for States to shoulder these responsibilities more directly. The current system rewards incumbent politicians considerably because blame can be passed around to a different level of government when it comes time for re-election.
    This is really the fundamental problem that cities are facing in North America, so many of these issues come down to the question of governance. Our Federal states (Canada and the United States) come from an era when most people lived in rural settings and are poorly equipped to properly manage our urban regions. Cities which are the legal creation of their provinces/states, with no Constitutional standing at the national level. Until we manage to square this circle, debates about whether the Federal or State/Provincial governments should be responsible for this kind of infrastructure are going to continue, and none of the answers are going to satisfy.

  15. Alon Levy June 5, 2011 at 6:44 pm #

    The issue here is that the quality of government in the US is low, and as a result relying on federal support to build good transit leads to boondoggles and wrong priorities. The problem is that this is true at all levels of government, and if anything the state and local governments are more corrupt and less reasonable than the feds. The intransigence of e.g. Albany is legendary – literally everything there requires political bribes to the major power brokers.

  16. Wad June 5, 2011 at 11:44 pm #

    @Danny, one reason why there ought to be a federal role in transportation funding: The federal government has a treasurehouse and a printing press.
    Infrastructure is an expensive proposition in both construction and implementation. Construction requires heavy upfront costs and is time-intensive in the prep work.
    If each state or city region ought to go it alone, you then create a beggar-thy-neighbor scenario in which an individual area must jeopardize its own economy temporarily (higher taxes and inconvenience), and thus put the project in jeopardy, while rivals steal off businesses and residents.
    Or, an economic calvinism forms where rich city regions can maintain their advantages knowing that no rival cities could ever hope to emerge. You then have a primate city surrounded by a satellite of economically dependent hamlets.
    A federal policy helps to mitigate these effects.
    Continued …

  17. Jarrett at HumanTransit.org June 6, 2011 at 8:31 am #

    Wad.  How deep does the national debt need to be before we stop calling the Treasury a "treasure house"?  Printing press is very important, especially if you want to devalue the dollar, but that hardly helps if we need to source overseas technologies and expertise.