LISA SCHWEITZER, associate professor in USC Price School of Public Policy:
This article originally appeared in POLITICO,
“Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood last week told POLITICO that the House transportation bill is “the worst” measure he’s ever seen “during 35 years of public service.”
His problem? The legislation would eliminate the deficit-plagued Highway Trust Fund as a funding source for transit, walking and biking projects. Money for those projects would instead have to come out of the general fund.
Transit and sustainability advocates are outraged. Don’t the bill’s supporters know how crucial these non-automobile means of travel are to cities?
Unfortunately, the bill is an all-too-predictable backlash against the White House and its apparent cluelessness about the difference between national transportation policy and urban transport policy.
When the Highway Trust Fund first ran a deficit in 2009, a National Academy of Sciences report called for a modest increase in the federal gas tax to replenish the fund. The administration’s response: a curt “no.”
Since then, Congress has tapped the general fund to close trust-fund shortfalls, restoking the ire of conservatives, who have long opposed using the federal fund to pay for local urban projects like transit. Some Democrats also now object to using the deficit-plagued general fund to backstop the Highway Trust Fund.
Enter the House bill, which would spend $260 billion over five years for road and bridge projects and other transportation programs. If the administration didn’t want to grapple with the political risk of raising gas tax revenues three years ago, it had to expect that the things that it favors but others don’t value — like transit — could get the ax. And if there’s one thing the House bill makes clear, it’s that not everyone shares the Obama administration’s urban transportation priorities.
No wonder. LaHood and President Barack Obama have been terrible ambassadors for their urban transportation visions. Unlike previous transportation secretaries, who discreetly played politics, LaHood has acted like a big-city mayor, not the head of a national agency. He has constantly advocated urban-friendly transport modes like mass transit.
LaHood, in one of his first moves, announced that highway spending should be “balanced” with spending on transit, walking and biking projects. In other words, take money from highway projects.
But neither LaHood nor Obama bothered to explain why, exactly, there should be any such spending shift with money that comes largely from automobile drivers. The administration has instead been deploying gauzy buzzwords like “livability” — declaring that driving is bad, while transit, walking and biking are good.
In urban areas, that’s the right message. Everywhere else, driving is known as “the only way to get to work or to the grocery store.
It should mystify nobody that the administration’s sense of entitlement to use Highway Trust Fund money for what are, in reality, urban transport priorities alienates politicians representing suburbs and rural areas.
Combine it with another projected trillion-dollar deficit; the perception of urban transit as a money pipeline for public-sector unions; and loud commitments to a national high-speed rail program even as the estimated cost of California’s project goes through the roof — and you get the House transportation bill.
Transit advocates have to realize that their federal funding sources are irrevocably waning. Yes, the Senate transportation bill is less draconian and more cognizant of the urban/highway divide, but its future is iffy, at best.
The problem is that all the reasons the administration and transit advocates give for transit’s importance to cities and cities’ importance to the economy — 86 percent of the nation’s gross domestic product is created in them — are the same reasons their opponents think cities and urban residents can afford to pay for their own downtown trolleys, sidewalks and bike lanes.
Rather than banking on the trust fund, transit advocates need to start looking for their project money at the local, regional and state levels. Measure R in Los Angeles County, for example, raised the sales tax by 0.5 cent to generate a projected $40 billion over the next 30 years for transit and road projects.
Of course, the local ballot box presents no sure route to new funding. But without a change in the federal gas tax, the days of federal largesse to transit are coming to a close — no matter how often Obama and LaHood assert how great transit is.
Lisa Schweitzer is an associate professor at the Price School of Public Policy at the University of Southern California. She specializes in transit policy.