A Big Fight Over a Small Slice of the Transportation Pie

The perennial debate over how much federal funding should go to mass transit is raging again.

Commuters board a Metro train August 19, 2010 in Washington, DC. AFP PHOTO/Karen BLEIER (Photo credit should read KAREN BLEIER/AFP/Getty Images)
National Journal
Fawn Johnson
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Fawn Johnson
April 22, 2015, 5:30 p.m.

If high­ways and bridges took the form of a high school foot­ball jock, metro buses and sub­ways would be that guy’s an­noy­ing kid sis­ter.

Mass trans­it re­ceives 20 per­cent of the money placed in­to the high­way trust fund from fed­er­al gas taxes. Its rider­ship is grow­ing, par­tic­u­larly among tex­ting-happy mil­len­ni­als, yet mass-trans­it ad­voc­ates must re­peatedly de­fend that re­l­at­ively small share of the fund­ing pot. They ad­mit it can get tire­some. They even bristle at the jar­gon of­ten used to refer to the meas­ure that gives them their live­li­hood; journ­al­ists and law­makers alike tend to refer to it as “the high­way bill.”

“This shouldn’t be The Hun­ger Games,” said Polly Trot­ten­berg, a former Trans­port­a­tion De­part­ment un­der­sec­ret­ary who is now the trans­port­a­tion com­mis­sion­er for New York City. “There is a de­sire for trans­it all over the coun­try.”

This year, the con­gres­sion­al fight over trans­it is a small blip with­in the broad­er sur­face-trans­port­a­tion de­bate, which fo­cuses al­most en­tirely on over­all fund­ing. But the protests against fed­er­ally-fun­ded trans­it still ex­ist. This means Trans­port­a­tion Com­mit­tee rank­ing mem­ber Peter De­Fazio must con­tin­ue stat­ing, as he has many times in the past, that he won’t sup­port a bill that cuts fund­ing for mass trans­it. Chair­man Bill Shuster knows this, and he has more or less agreed to keep trans­it fund­ing un­touched for the sake of keep­ing the bill bi­par­tis­an. For De­Fazio, that’s huge pro­gress.

“We’re not start­ing with, you know … zero for trans­it. Bill [Shuster] is much more real­ist­ic than that,” De­Fazio said. “We’re look­ing more at the tra­di­tion­al share that goes to trans­it.”

Yet Shuster also needs to get the bill through com­mit­tee with at least two con­ser­vat­ive mem­bers who op­pose a fed­er­al trans­it pro­gram—Ken­tucky Re­pub­lic­an Thomas Massie and former South Car­o­lina Re­pub­lic­an Gov. Mark San­ford. Both Massie and San­ford have in­tro­duced le­gis­la­tion (with long odds of passing) to do away with the mass-trans­it ac­count with­in the high­way trust fund. Massie’s would im­me­di­ately re­peal the mass-trans­it ac­count and fed­er­al money for ped­es­tri­an and bi­cycle paths. San­ford’s would phase out the mass-trans­it ac­count over five years.

These bills agit­ate trans­it ad­voc­ates. Their latest re­sponse is to hold pub­lic ral­lies. Earli­er this month, the Amer­ic­an Pub­lic Trans­port­a­tion As­so­ci­ation or­gan­ized some 350 or­gan­iz­a­tions to con­duct 150 na­tion­wide events for a grass­roots ad­vocacy day dubbed “Stand Up For Trans­port­a­tion.”

“This is a na­tion­al move­ment, and we are not go­ing away,” said APTA Chair Phil Wash­ing­ton, who also is the CEO of Den­ver’s RTD mass-trans­port­a­tion sys­tem. “This is our wake-up call to Con­gress.”

“The two bills are something we take very ser­i­ously,” said APTA Pres­id­ent Mi­chael Melaniphy. “These are hor­rible ideas. They are dev­ast­at­ing to this na­tion.”

The flare-up re­flects a genu­ine and on­go­ing ten­sion about where to put scarce fed­er­al trans­port­a­tion dol­lars. Skep­tics ask wheth­er 20 per­cent of na­tion­ally-gathered money should go to sys­tems that be­ne­fit a much smal­ler per­cent­age of the U.S. pop­u­la­tion. It’s true that New York City would be dev­ast­ated without its sub­way sys­tem. It cov­ers 5,000 miles and car­ries 8.7 mil­lion people a day, ac­cord­ing to the New York Met­ro­pol­it­an Trans­port­a­tion Au­thor­ity.

Yet out­side of six ma­jor cit­ies—New York, Chica­go, Phil­adelphia, San Fran­cisco, Bo­ston, and Wash­ing­ton—just 2.4 per­cent of com­muters use mass trans­it, ac­cord­ing to Wendell Cox, a former mem­ber of the Los Angeles County Trans­port­a­tion Com­mis­sion and now a vis­it­ing fel­low at the con­ser­vat­ive Her­it­age Found­a­tion. “Trans­it is not a genu­inely fed­er­al is­sue. Pub­lic fund­ing for trans­it would be more ap­pro­pri­ately provided by the states and loc­al­it­ies,” Cox ar­gued in a re­cent is­sue brief.

This de­bate is tak­ing place at a time when car-cent­ric mo­bil­ity is slowly ebbing and urb­an dis­tricts are be­com­ing even big­ger drivers of the U.S. eco­nomy. Large U.S. cit­ies of 150,000 or more in­hab­it­ants gen­er­ated al­most 85 per­cent of the coun­try’s GDP in 2010, ac­cord­ing to the McKin­sey Glob­al In­sti­tute. Eco­nom­ic growth in those areas has only con­tin­ued since then. Around the world, the U.S. eco­nomy is con­sidered the most urb­an-de­pend­ent among de­veloped coun­tries.

Even if city-dwell­ers aren’t ditch­ing their cars, they still need op­tions to get from place to place. It’s not un­com­mon for urb­an and sub­urb­an res­id­ents to rely on two or three modes of trans­port­a­tion to get to work, for ex­ample. That’s why pub­lic-trans­it ad­voc­ates con­tinu­ally re­peat the word “in­teg­rated” on Cap­it­ol Hill to em­phas­ize that the coun­try’s trans­port­a­tion net­work needs to give people lots of op­tions—in­ter­states, coun­try roads, com­muter rail, sub­ways, bike paths, and side­walks.

“We’re not go­ing to double-deck all of our roads and bridges across the coun­try,” Melaniphy said. “If we want it to work to­geth­er well, it has to work to­geth­er well as a sys­tem.”

Last year, the lib­er­al Pub­lic In­terest Re­search Group re­leased a re­port show­ing that for the first time since World War II, the auto­mobile miles traveled by Amer­ic­ans had leveled off to roughly 3 tril­lion a year. It was sharp de­par­ture from a con­sist­ently steady up­ward climb since the 1940s, ac­cord­ing to PIRG’s ana­lys­is of Trans­port­a­tion De­part­ment data.

PIRG also found that the people who are driv­ing the least are the young­est. Of the com­mut­ing trips taken between 2006 and 2013, car trips dropped 1.5 per­cent among 16- to 24-year-olds and 1.3 per­cent among 25- to 44-year-olds, the study says. True, that’s not a huge drop, but it re­flects a steady trend of young people choos­ing to use oth­er modes of travel.

Vet­er­an Re­pub­lic­ans in Con­gress don’t need con­vin­cing that trans­it is an es­sen­tial com­pon­ent of the sur­face-trans­port­a­tion bill. Even if they don’t like the mass-trans­it ac­count in prin­ciple, they know the only way to get the must-pass le­gis­la­tion en­acted is by al­low­ing it to con­tin­ue. But the new­er con­ser­vat­ive mem­bers do need con­vin­cing, APTA’s Melaniphy says. He be­lieves they have come to Wash­ing­ton un­fa­mil­i­ar with trans­port­a­tion is­sues and see trans­it as an easy place to cut. That means APTA feels it ne­ces­sary to be on the Hill edu­cat­ing them each year.

“We’ve cer­tainly heard from lead­er­ship that they may have had these views early on, but there is a real­iz­a­tion that they can’t take these sys­tems for gran­ted,” Melaniphy said.

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