Stimulus Package on Track to Perpetuate Transpo Status Quo

nyc_brt_1.jpgWill stimulus cash help implement New York’s five BRT pilot routes? Image: Gotham Gazette.

A front page story in yesterday’s Washington Post has the most thorough analysis to date of how infrastructure spending may be divvied up in an Obama stimulus package. Nothing is set in stone, but the dividing lines are increasingly clear: States and their DOTs are emphasizing road projects, while cities are looking for ways to reduce congestion. The emphasis on getting shovels in the ground quickly will also skew spending, says Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak:

"The quickest things we can do may not be the ones that have the most
significant long-term impact on the green economy," he said. "Unless we
push a transit investment, this will end up being a stimulus package
that rebalances our transportation strategy toward roads and away from
[what] we need to get off our addiction to oil."

Mayors say there would be a better chance for a long-term impact if
the money were focused on metropolitan areas where investments could
make the most difference in reducing congestion and lessening
dependence on cars. They doubt that will happen if infrastructure
funding goes directly to state capitals.

As it stands, Congress, wanting to keep things simple, plans to
disburse the money under existing formulas — funding for roads and
bridges will go to state governments, while money for public transit
will go to the local agencies that receive transit funding. 

Yes, there will be another window of opportunity to overhaul the existing formula and other bad habits with next year’s big transportation bill. For now, however, the lack of vision is startling. As Smart Growth America’s David Goldberg says in the Post, "It doesn’t have the power to stir men’s souls." Some signal that the nation is moving in a new direction is in order.

Even in New York, a land of mega-projects where the regional transit agency has immense needs, the MTA is asking for nothing more ambitious than station rehabs and accelerated track replacement.

So what would a visionary infrastructure stimulus for New York look like? How about physically separated, radial BRT lines connecting the outer boroughs to Manhattan (or at least implementing the BRT pilot plan that’s been public for more than two years). Or an accelerated and expanded build-out of the protected bike path network. If there was ever a time to think big, now is the moment.

  • This is utterly frustrating, and unfortunately may be one of the first signs of Obama’s inability to effect real change. I hope I am wrong.

  • I think it would be a good idea to spend some of the stimulus money on hybrid buses for existing transit systems.

    This money could be spent really quickly, since the production facilities already exist, and the buses would lower the operating expenses for transit systems that are short on cash.

  • Larry Littlefield

    I didn’t read the article, but are they considering spending money on new roads, or just repairs to existing roads and bridges? I wouldn’t advocate the abandonment of existing roads and bridges as a policy, though I don’t see new ones as a solution.

    I’d like to see the MTA implement fare control on the commuter railroads. A combination of a smart card entry/exit with cameras and motion sensors to identify anyone trying to walk on the track and then hop on the platform to avoid the fare. That could save a boatload of money.

    Perhaps smartcards could be installed on the buses as well, speeding entry relative to the existing metrocard machines.

    Station rehabs are a good use of stimulus, because your typical construction workers who are laid off from private projects could do the work. No so for other subway projects. If we really want stimulus, we should be willing to endure line shutdowns to speed the work.

    Here is one that would probably be clogged up politically. In more dense areas of the city, remove on-street two parking spaces at each intersection to both improve visiblilty and install bike racks. At the top of my block, one space at the corner was made no-parking because of a series of crashes caused by poor visibility. Lots of young folks could be trained to mix and pour cement.

  • That’s change we can believe in!

  • JP

    I feel that there is just too much uncertainty about which types of infrastructure projects will be funded. Obama needs to send a signal about road projects: road repair and maintenance will be funded, new roads or road expansion will not.

    It is quite odd that transit agencies are not being more aggressive in their requests.

  • rex

    It is time to get rail connections to all of the regions airports. I know air travel is not the greenest form of travel, but for trips exceeding a 1000 miles, it is going be with us for a long time to come. People come from all over the world to vacation and do business in NYC, we should encourage that trend.

  • We should start looking beyond the short-term stimulus package and toward the reauthorization of federal transportation funding that will occur in September, which gives us a real chance to change the direction of federal transportation funding. Since a new bill will be passed in September, the political battle has to begin soon. Here are some quotes from a recent news article about it:

    The federal program that provides aid to states for highway construction and transit expenses expires on Sept. 30. The current program was funded at $286 billion over five years. Its cost is mainly underwritten by the federal 18.4 cents-per-gallon gas tax, but revenues have failed to keep up with obligations.

    Last January, a blue-ribbon transportation commission recommended increasing the gas tax as much as 40 cents a gallon over five years. The additional money would help cover the federal share of an estimated $225 billion the commission says is needed each year to upgrade transportation systems.

    Boosting the gas tax carries political risks. The last time it was raised, a backlash against Democrats in the 1994 elections helped Republicans capture control of the House and Senate. Obama has expressed concern about raising taxes in the current economic climate.

    Even without an increase, Obama will have to deal with environmentalists who want to undo a bargain struck during the Reagan administration that funnels roughly 80 percent of gas tax revenue to highway projects and 15 percent to transit. They want to redirect money away from highways to alternatives such as transit and intercity passenger trains.

    Obama’s energy plan calls for saving as much oil as the U.S. currently imports from the Middle East and Venezuela within 10 years, which is about 3.5 million barrels a day.

    “That’s going to require a pretty robust program to save oil, which means not just better vehicle technology and not just alternative fuels.

    Something will have to be done about transportation policy,” said Deron Lovaas of the Natural Resources Defense Council.

    “The question is, does it make sense if energy security is an overarching national commitment to stick to … a 25-year-old deal?” Lovaas said. “I think the answer is, ‘No.’ That’s going to be an enormous fight.”

    http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgif=/n/a/2008/12/12/national/w094032S84.DTL

  • Rhywun

    Of COURSE Obama doesn’t bring “real” change. The American public doesn’t want it & isn’t ready for it.

  • The sooner we stop thinking of gas tax revenues as being destined for anything in particular, the better. The “trust fund” branding gives people that regularly, personally propel themselves with that poison the most perverse sense of entitlement, as if they were financing public transportation for an underclass of freeloaders. (No: there are many other columns on the transportation balance sheet.) Gas taxes should be understood the same as a cigarette taxes, a legitimate source of government revenue with side effects that are highly beneficial to society.

  • Sam

    If they have the money, why don’t they build electric streetcars? They’re much more efficient than buses, have lower operating costs, and are a lot more attractive to riders.

  • GrantMaven

    The problem is in the requirements that are being communicated to state and local officials. To be eligible for stimulus funds, projects have to be part of regional transportation plans, be ready to go into construction within 90 days of selection, and be procured by the federal process. In other words, the only projects that will qualify for the funding are those that were already part of the portfolio of potential federal-aid projects and were inches from the starting line. Stimulus isn’t going to generate any new work; it’s either going to free up some local money for other purposes (that will take a while to get going), or it’s going to allow some projects to move that were waiting for funding. Unfortunately, virtually the only projects that meet these conditions are road projects. Because there has been such a road bias for so long, there just isn’t a significant portfolio of projects that are far enough along the pipeline to qualify for money under these terms. They only way there can be a real change is to change the terms — essentially to do the “transportation bill” now.

  • Friends of the Earth has an email you can send to your representative calling for spending stimulus funds on road maintenance and transit rather than new roads at http://action.foe.org/t/8489/campaign.jsp?campaign_KEY=26352

    Though I think it is unrealistic to shift much stimulus money to transit, it does make sense to concentrate on fixing existing roads rather than building new ones.

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