Public Transit Keeps Stumbling in Congress Despite Major Needs

File-In this Wednesday, April 25,2012 file photo commuters enter and exit a train at the MTA Red Line Hollywood/Western station in Los Angeles. Transportation officials have voted to end the honor system for riders on Los Angeles County's subway and light rail system because too much revenue is being lost to scofflaws. Metro will phase in locking gates that riders will need a ticket to pass through.
National Journal
Stacy Kaper
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Stacy Kaper
July 24, 2013, 7:35 a.m.

The num­ber of miles drivers log on the road has de­clined over the last dec­ade and con­tin­ues to drop. Ad­di­tion­al high­way lanes in cit­ies na­tion­wide have failed to fix con­ges­tion prob­lems. Evid­ence is mount­ing that pub­lic trans­it can boost eco­nom­ic growth and re­lieve pop­u­la­tion pres­sures.

Yet many trans­port­a­tion ex­perts com­plain that fed­er­al policies in Con­gress, which in turn drive policies in states and cit­ies, con­tin­ue to fa­vor build­ing high­ways, and that pub­lic trans­it is as be­lea­guered as ever.

These policies, they say, are car­ried by power­ful, well-es­tab­lished in­terests that back road-build­ing over al­tern­at­ive trans­port­a­tion modes such as light rail, com­muter buses and shuttles, bike paths, and ped­es­tri­an walk­ways.

“Start­ing in the mid-‘90s, we star­ted to see a struc­tur­al shift in what the mar­ket wants. Un­for­tu­nately, how we fund the in­fra­struc­ture sys­tem, the sub­sidies, the land-use laws — everything is geared to just de­liv­er­ing driv­able sub­urb­an. The cards are stacked,” said Chris­toph­er Lein­ber­ger, a vis­it­ing fel­low with the Brook­ings In­sti­tu­tion.

“It’s be­cause we have been sub­sid­iz­ing huge in­dus­tries. You’ve got all the road build­ers, you’ve got the Na­tion­al As­so­ci­ation of Re­altors, the home­build­ers, the of­fice- and busi­ness-park people, and they all like their sub­sidies,” he said. “They fight back.”

Pub­lic-trans­it sys­tems — which are of­ten viewed as a pub­lic ser­vice, provid­ing a low-cost way to get people to work, school, and es­sen­tial ser­vices like gro­cery shop­ping — of­ten have a sub­stan­tial chunk of their cap­it­al costs sub­sid­ized by the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment.

But this mod­el comes un­der scru­tiny when budgets are tight. Be­cause trans­it sys­tems of­ten charge rates that are barely high enough to cov­er op­er­at­ing costs, the sub­sidies can be a sore spot for fisc­al hawks, par­tic­u­larly amid the in­flux of tea-party mem­bers in the House, who want to shrink the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment and rein in spend­ing.

“One of the big chal­lenges is just the kind of polit­ic­al in­er­tia or a sense that en­trenched in­terests con­tin­ue to do things the way they al­ways have done things,” said Phineas Bax­an­dall, a seni­or ana­lyst with the U.S. Pub­lic In­terest Re­search Group.

U.S. PIRG re­leased a study re­cently show­ing that the trend of fall­ing driv­ing mileage is con­tinu­ing as baby boomers shift in­to re­tire­ment and driv­ing-averse mil­len­ni­als, who rely more heav­ily on pub­lic trans­port­a­tion than their par­ents did, swell the work­force.

Trans­it sys­tems tend to pro­lif­er­ate in lar­ger urb­an areas, are of­ten re­lied upon by poorer and work­ing-class pas­sen­gers, are ex­pens­ive to de­vel­op, and of­ten do not break even, much less turn a profit.

Un­sur­pris­ingly, many of the polit­ic­al fault lines break down between Re­pub­lic­ans and Demo­crats, and rur­al versus urb­an law­makers, mean­ing trans­it sup­port­ers are out­numbered in the House.

Last year, un­der then-Trans­port­a­tion and In­fra­struc­ture Com­mit­tee Chair­man John Mica, R-Fla., House Re­pub­lic­ans at­temp­ted to push a sur­face-trans­port­a­tion bill that would have stripped out ded­ic­ated fund­ing for mass trans­it. The bill came un­der at­tack and failed to make its way out of the House, but it il­lus­trated the pres­sure con­ser­vat­ives are un­der to find ways to slash spend­ing.

Demo­crats cred­it cur­rent Trans­port­a­tion Com­mit­tee Chair­man Bill Shuster, R-Pa., with mak­ing trans­port­a­tion — in­clud­ing mass trans­it — a pri­or­ity, but he hopes to stream­line and elim­in­ate some trans­it pro­grams in the next trans­port­a­tion bill.

“Trans­it plays an im­port­ant role in urb­an, sub­urb­an, and rur­al com­munit­ies across the na­tion,” he said, adding that pri­or­it­ies for the high­way bill will fo­cus on “fed­er­al trans­it policies and pro­grams to make the most ef­fect­ive and ef­fi­cient use of tax­pay­er dol­lars.”

Fed­er­al fund­ing for mass trans­it re­mains in ser­i­ous jeop­ardy. Un­der a Re­agan-era policy, roughly 20 per­cent of a gas tax that funds the High­way Trust Fund is ded­ic­ated to mass trans­it, provid­ing re­sources for cap­it­al in­vest­ments.

But that fund — which mostly goes to high­ways, roads, and bridges — is fa­cing a severe short­fall, as drivers con­tin­ue driv­ing less and shift to more fuel-ef­fi­cient vehicles. The High­way Trust Fund is on track to go in­to the red in fisc­al 2015, spelling prob­lems for all sur­face-trans­port­a­tion in­vest­ments. And mass trans­it is per­haps the most vul­ner­able.

“The biggest prob­lem trans­it has is, its costs are out of con­trol,” said Wendell Cox, vis­it­ing fel­low with the Her­it­age Found­a­tion. “One of the big prob­lems, and one of my great frus­tra­tions, has been that the an­swer to every ques­tion in trans­it is more fund­ing.”

Con­gress is un­likely to tackle the is­sue un­til it takes up the sur­face-trans­port­a­tion reau­thor­iz­a­tion, which ex­pires at the end of next year.

“Now they are on a track to strangle [trans­it] to death, just a little bit more slowly than what they ac­tu­ally pro­posed pre­vi­ously,” said Rep. Peter De­Fazio, D-Ore., the rank­ing mem­ber on the Trans­port­a­tion and In­fra­struc­ture High­ways and Trans­it Sub­com­mit­tee.

“If you look at what’s go­ing to hap­pen to the trust fund and what’s pro­posed in the Ry­an budget, giv­en the real­it­ies of the trust fund, trans­it would go to near zero in the year 2015. I can’t even en­vi­sion how cata­stroph­ic that would be.”

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