US Federal Policy

conservatives commit to federal funding of transit (in australia)

US readers watching the Federal budget process, in which one major party is proposing Federal disinvestment in city-serving infrastructure, might note that Australia is moving the other way.  The Labor government created Infrastructure Australia in 2008 to be a conduit for federal funding of transit infrastructure, a role similar to that long played by the Federal Transit Administration in the US.  Now, the more conservative opposition — the "Coalition" of the Liberal and National parties — has endorsed the contination of that policy, signaling that this role is likely to continue regardless of who is in Government.  On his party website, Opposition Leader Tony Abbott states:

The Coalition supports Infrastructure Australia (IA) and in government will strengthen its role, creating a more transparent, accountable and effective adviser on infrastructure projects.

We’ll keep it, we’ll fund it and we’ll listen to it because important infrastructure decisions should be made on the basis of rational planning …

The Coalition will ensure that Infrastructure Australia has guaranteed ongoing funding. … The Coalition’s commitment means that IA will be provided with the resources necessary for it to do its job properly.

It's interesting to think about why urban issues that are bipartisan in Australia seem to become Democratic concerns in the US.   In both countries, most of the population lives in urban areas, but there is a crucial difference in language that creates a difference in habits of thought.  Americans think of big "cities" as separate from their "suburbs," and often use these terms as shorthand or euphemism for a range of other oppositions.  (Only in America, for example, would a style of music associated with black people be called "Urban.")  Americans also have the idea of a suburban center (what Joel Garreau calls an "Edge City') that clings to the outer orbit of a big city but can think of itself as unrelated to it.  Hence someone in Tyson's Corner, Virginia, say, may be happier thinking of their metro area as "Northern Virginia" rather than "greater Washington DC."   

Those word choices lead to a US political reality in which big cities — narrowly defined in exclusion of their suburbs — represent a minority of the population and thus attract the interest of only one side of the political divide. 

By contrast, when Australians say "Sydney" or "Melbourne" they usually mean the entire urban area — the continuous patch of lights that you see from an airplane.  So people who live in what Americans would call the suburbs of Sydney think of themselves as living in Sydney.  This way of speaking encourages them to accept that the problems of Sydney are their problems, whereas a resident of Tyson's Corner may feel quite removed from the problems of "Washington."  When cities are understood in that inclusive way, it follows that most Australians live in cities, so naturally both sides of the political divide must care about them.

futility, geometry, and action

To bypass the rage and righteousness around an issue, and move toward solving it, we first have to convince ourselves that solving it is impossible.

That's the thesis of Andrew Sullivan's piece today, "Why the Healthcare Question is Insoluble."  He's talking about healthcare in the US context, but few countries have achieved widespread contentment on the issue.  I'm not sure you can expect widespread contentment on an issue that requires thinking about sickness and death, at least not at humanity's current level of spiritual development.

My work on transit policy has always come from the same existential position that Andrew lays out.  Like every family working out its budget, societies have to make choices between different things that they value.  As in healthcare, arguments about these choices often use pre-emptive appeals to compassion or justice to shift our attention away from the the real choice.  Government actions that are "compassionate" or that address "civil rights" seem to be responding to an absolute standard of goodness and truth, but often, they still cost money, possibly more money than any government can expect to spend.

I'm very glad to be in transit instead of healthcare, because a few hours debating healthcare makes transit problems look easy.  Easy, but still impossible

By easy that I mean that the questions are relatively easy to frame (Connections or complexity?  Ridership or coverage?  Wide stop spacing or close?) and it's not too hard to explain (a) the consequence of each choice and (b) why the choice is geometrically unavoidable.  Laying out those questions is a key task of my book Human Transit

But once you lay out those questions, you have to pause and see that by their nature, there's no answer that everyone will like.  There may not even be an answer that a majority will like.  And in that sense, the task of resolving the issue is impossible

The geometry of transit tells us that each of these choices gives us a spectrum of possibilities.  A transit network can go to the extreme of relying on connections, and thus minimizing complexity, or it can go to the extreme of avoiding connections, which maximizes complexity, but every time you move toward one desired outcome, you move away from another one.  That's how a spectrum works.  And you can appeal to "civil rights" or "compassion" or "common sense" or "the needs of working families" as much as you want; those appeals may prod policymakers to move one way or the other, but they don't change the geometry.  In fact, they're dangerous to the degree that they encourage us not to notice what has to be sacrificed to move in the direction that the speaker advocates.

My experience with many transit agencies is that everyone is a little scared of stating these questions in such a simple way, because it means you really have to answer them.  And answering them requires accepting, with some humility, that any possible decision will leave many people outraged.  Faced with the courage that this requires, it's tempting to retreat into the confusion.  It's tempting to want the issue to be complicated so that you'll never be called to account for making a clear, stark choice of this over that — even though true leadership lies exactly in the willingness to make those choices.  So when an issue seems complicated, we always need to ask, "what interests are being served by the sheer complexity of this issue?"  "Can the issue actually be made simple?"

I'm not sure that can be done for healthcare, but bravo to Andrew Sullivan for trying.  I am pretty sure it can be done for many of the main debates in transit policy, and that's the core of my work right now.

transit acceleration campaign goes national

For over a year now, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa has been spearheading a "30/10" initiative, designed to accelerate the construction a range of urgently needed transit projects (mostly rail transit lines).  The key word is accelerate, not fund.  The projects are already funded, but on a 30-year timeline.  The 30/10 proposal would deliver the projects in 10 years.

The idea begins with Measure R, a 30-year sales tax increment approved by Los Angeles County voters in 2008 to fund a large package of rail transit improvements, including the Wilshire subway to the westside.  Villairagosa wants the Federal government to create a mechanism to bond this revenue so that it can be spent in one decade instead of three. 

Well, you can only get Congress interested if the same idea can be applied in many places, so predictably the Mayor and Metro are now presenting America Fast Forward, a national campaign to create a similar mechanism for any urban region that has already put funded projects in place.  Los Angeles Metro's blog Source covers it here, the Los Angeles Times's Tim Rutten opines here.  Here's a puffy PDF.

Because it relies on Federal financing rather than spending, and because the funding sources are local tax streams that are relatively stable, it's an approach that could potentially succeed even in lean times.

In a tweet, Cap'n Transit asked me:  Could it be used to build highways?  Yes, it looks like the same mechanism could be used, in theory, to fund any locally supported infrastructure.  I hope it will be constrained to transportation, and if it were constrained to voter-approved funding streams like Los Angeles's Measure R it could well usher in a new era of these measures, in which most voters could vote up or down on a set of plans knowing that if passed, all of them would be built and running in just ten years, soon enough to affect most voters' lives.


disasters can raise your taxes

Australians will be paying higher taxes to pay for the recovery from this disastrous flood season.  When you're the relatively small central government of a small country that's prone to big disasters, there are only so many ways you can self-insure against these things. 

I think about how this would play out in the US.  People would scream about the hardship from the disaster. The governor and president would promise relief, and by and large all those unexpected expenses would simply be piled into the deficit.

That happens, in part, because the US Federal government is so huge and opaque. It deals with such colossal numbers that even its deficits convey a liminal suggestion of boundless capacity.  The mysteries of managing the world's reserve currency, for example, just can't be explained by analogy to your family's budget.

Aussies just don't see their government that way.  They know how small it is, and they can see that its budgetary choices are like of a household at a larger scale.   

This is part of why I'm so obsessed with tools that make big public choices comprehensible, like the Los Angeles Times "balance the California budget yourself" tool, or, in my business, network planning games.  It's a reason why I don't mind if the California budget crisis leads to functions being pushed down to the local government level, as long as these functions scale to the local government boundaries and as long those governments can go to their voters for the funding they need.  One thing we've seen clearly in Calfornia is that people will vote for taxes for things that are important to them, and that they're more likely to support taxes that are kept close to home and devoted to a specific purpose.

People have got to see the choices.  They've got to understand government budgets on analogy to their family's budgets.  I don't see another way.


do roads pay for themselves?

In the US, the answer is no, not even close, according to new work by USPIRG:

  • Gasoline taxes aren’t “user fees” in any meaningful sense of the term – The amount of money a particular driver pays in gasoline taxes bears little relationship to his or her use of roads funded by gas taxes. 
  • State gas taxes are often not “extra” fees – Most states exempt gasoline from the state sales tax, diverting much of the money that would have gone into a state’s general fund to roads.
  • Federal gas taxes have typically not been devoted exclusively to highways – Since its 1934 inception, Congress only temporarily dedicated gas tax revenues fully to highways during the brief 17-year period beginning in 1956. This was at the start of construction for the Interstate highway network, a project completed in the 1990s.
  • Highways don’t pay for themselves — Since 1947, the amount of money spent on highways, roads and streets has exceeded the amount raised through gasoline taxes and other so-called “user fees” by $600 billion (2005 dollars), representing a massive transfer of general government funds to highways.
  • Highways “pay for themselves” less today than ever. Currently, highway “user fees” pay only about half the cost of building and maintaining the nation’s network of highways, roads and streets.
  • These figures fail to include the many costs imposed by highway construction on non-users of the system, including damage to the environment and public health and encouragement of sprawling forms of development that impose major costs on the environment and government finances.

    Quote of the Week: Transit Construction Costs in the U.S.

    It seems like every time I read about a metro line outside the United States, except in the UK, it is way cheaper than we can do. … Alon Levy has contrasted the cost of subway construction in New York with the much lower costs in Tokyo, for example. We seem to have a system in the US that significantly inflates the cost of construction vs. the rest of the world. Many of the typical complaints as to why this might be would seem to have no merit. Other countries are heavily unionized and regulated, for example, so don’t blame organized labor. (South Korean unions are famously militant). Spain and Japan are not exactly low cost countries. And basically all new systems world are fully compliant with equivalents to the [Americans with Disabilities Act].

    — Aaron Renn, the Urbanophile

    I keep hearing this observation about US construction costs.  It’s totally outside my expertise, but if anyone has seen a satisfactory explanation of why US transit construction is so expensive, please link to it in a comment.

    u.s. transit capital funding: a big picture?

    An email asks a seemingly eternal question, from reader Aaron Brown:

    I … wanted to reach out to see if you’d be willing to provide any thoughts on the massive capital funding backlogs that major transit systems face here in the US. The latest reports I’ve seen throw around numbers above $50bn just to bring systems into a state of good repair, excluding any expansion. Given the current condition of local, state, and federal budgets, this number seems extremely daunting to me.Here in Chicago, for instance, we have a pretty solid transit system (relative to most US cities), but one that is old and badly in need of repairs. Again, however, the amount need just to bring the system to a state of good repair ($7bn for the CTA alone) seems overwhelming. We have aging buses and railcars, tracks and ties in need of replacement, and an L system with structures over 100 years old that are all competing for limited funds. And this is in a city and transit system that is seeing record ridership and will need to expand over the next few decades to serve one of the largest (and growing) metro areas in the country. Continue Reading →

    Can U.S. States Lead on Urban Planning?

    The Transport Politic proposes the need to consolidate more multi-modal planning authority at the level of the states.  While multi-modal planning authority is a good thing at any level of government, I wonder if US states are poorly suited for this purpose because so many US metro areas cross state boundaries. I notice this problem more from my current perch in Australia, because Australians even flirt with the idea of abolishing their state governments entirely.  While that’s certainly not the answer in the US, Americans do need to think about which level of government is best suited to which kind of task. Continue Reading →

    Confronting Words from U.S. Transit Administrator

    As usual, the Transport Politic has a good survey of the confronting speech by US Federal Transit Administrator Peter Rogoff.  People who are in this business because they love trains will find it especially disturbing.  Read the whole thing.

    Rogoff’s gist is:  We need to slow down on constructing new rail transit, so that we can focus more on our massive deficits in operations and maintenance.

    As someone who values abundant access, and who views technologies as tools rather than goals, I obviously have some sympathy with this view, though I prefer to be a little more nuanced than Rogoff is: Continue Reading →

    Guest Post: U.S. Transit Needs an “Emergency Operations Fund”

    This guest post is by Ron Kilcoyne, General Manager/CEO of Greater Bridgeport Transit in Bridgeport, Connecticut.  Ron’s previous posts include CEO of Santa Clarita Transit near Los Angeles and manager of research and planning for AC Transit in Oakland, California.  The views expressed are his own and not those of his agency.

    What will it take to restore all the transit service cuts over the past two years and prevent additional service reductions? I haven’t found an exact number but 10% of the total cost of providing transit service nationally would be good rough estimate.  For example, at least two suburban transit systems – one in Cleveland OH, another in Atlanta — have or will shut down completely this year. The Chicago Transit Authority anticipates eliminating 14% of it service on February 7. Colorado Springs CO reduced service by 53% on January 1. Between late 2008 and this spring Orange County Transit reduced service by 22%. Continue Reading →