The Department of Transportation furloughed one-third of its workers last week as a result of a government shutdown. That's about 18,000 staffers out of 55,000.
The surprise shouldn't be in the number of DOT employees who are stuck at home (it is, after all, a shutdown), but in those who are still performing their jobs. The continued activity of two-thirds of the Transportation Department speaks to the many "essential" roles of federal transportation officials, like air traffic controllers, and the complex funding of the transportation system. As Tanya Snyder explains in last week's D.C. Streets Blog, some DOT employees continue to work because their activities are funded by the highway trust fund, which still has money thanks to the nation's continuing purchase of gasoline. Some employees continue their activities because they are funded with contract authority.
And that's just the federal system. The city and state transportation systems also continue to run as if nothing happened. Well, almost. Amtrak, which receives federal subsidies, will keep running until it runs out of money. That could be weeks or months. The highways are still open. Even Highway 64, which runs straight through the closed Grand Canyon, is drivable.The Washington D.C. Metro is still running on schedule, although the ridership has dropped because of all those federal workers who have to stay home. (For an insightful read on those guys, see the DOT's Q&A for workers about the furloughs.)
That doesn't mean there isn't a lot of disruption. The DOT has suspended its facility security inspections, financial operations, and employee drug testing program. The grant-making operations are on hold, which means state DOTs and contractors in critical stages of road projects could be severely impacted if the shutdown goes on for a long time. Truckload border crossings are being slowed as the U.S. Customs and Border Protection is operating on essential staff only.
Even so, the immediate impact of the shutdown on travelers is a far cry from the total disruption that occurs in say, France, when the transit union strikes and no one goes anywhere. We can all still get to where we want to go, even if the security lines are longer or the monuments we are visiting are closed. The transportation activities that are stopped aren't the ones we see. They are in research, development, and quality control—the stuff that eventually will be needed if the system is to function smoothly.
Is the continued flow of traffic during a shutdown appropriate, given the stakes of the standoff? Should two-thirds of the DOT still be working even as lawmakers can't been able to fund the agency? Why should the feds maintain transportation operations during a shutdown? Or should they shut everything down? How important is the highway trust fund in determining who works and who doesn't? How important is contracting authority? What is the most damaging impact of the shutdown on transportation? How about the least damaging? What would happen if the shutdown continued for a month or longer?