Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed put forth a blunt plea for more control over transportation money in an op-ed last week. He noted, as anyone in his position must, that the funding for infrastructure will be insufficient if it is squeezed any tighter. He pointed out that the Atlanta Regional Commission made an infrastructure wish list that costs three times what the city can pay over the next 15 years.
Then he got to the point. He said that urban populations are projected to grow by 84 million people over the next three decades. At the same time, local metropolitan officials aren't being given the appropriate "empowerment in deciding how transportation dollars are invested."
In short, Reed is engaging in an age-old tug-of-war between state transportation officials and their city-level counterparts about who gets to dole out the infrastructure money. Those struggles only get tenser when the federal dollars are squeezed, as is the case now.
Reed makes another, less politically charged observation that deserves some attention. He says "cities the country's are laboratories for innovation" on infrastructure. There is some evidence to back up that claim. Atlanta certainly has a few innovations of its own to brag about. And urban planning across the country is a hotbed of intellectual creativity. The only question is whether a city's creativity can extend to less densely populated areas.
Reed cites the creation of the Atlanta BeltLine, 22 miles of light rail, streetcar, and walkable trails and parkland that circle the city's core. The project has generated $1 billion in new private real estate development. (Some critics say that development would have happened anyway.)
The Atlanta BeltLine has received $120 million from specialized real estate property taxes, $37.5 million donated by private and philanthropic organizations, and about $42 million from various government sources. The BeltLine also won an award last year from National Journal as one of the most innovative infrastructure financing projects that Washington policymakers can learn from.
Reed says all the actors involved in a city's infrastructure planning—the private sector, the philanthropists, and all levels of government—need to work together seamlessly in order to provide decent transportation for a city. To that end, he says the decision-making power on infrastructure resources needs to be in the hands of "cities and their regions," not the states.
Reed's position isn't surprising. He echoes the complaints of local officials throughout the country. But that's to be expected. No mayor or county transportation commissioner wants to be at the mercy of a state transportation office. It's also true, however, that states themselves generate at least as much money for infrastructure as they get from the federal government, so they are a hard middle man to cut out.
Besides, as wonderful as cities are, there are still 60 million people in rural areas of the country, according to the U.S. Census bureau. Let's not forget about them.
For our insiders: Is there an imbalance between state and local control of transportation dollars? If so, how are cities hamstrung by state governments? Or is the situation actually the reverse? Are there rural or suburban corollaries to the public/private/philanthropic/property tax financing model that makes the Atlanta BeltLine work? Can a city's experiments with financing urban projects be carried out on a broader scale or in more spread-out areas? What is the appropriate role for a state to play in a city's transportation planning? Does Reed have a legitimate beef?
(Note: This is a moderated discussion on transportation issues. Comments are approved on a case-by-case basis. If you want to be a regular contributor, contact me.)