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The Ryan Budget: Doing the Same Thing, Expecting a Different Result

The House GOP had its big moment earlier this week. Amidst skyrocketing oil prices, deteriorating infrastructure and slumping transportation budgets, Republicans had their chance to lay out a bold new policy framework to help America recover from a brutal recession and reaffirm its place as a world leader.

Instead, as we reported yesterday, Paul Ryan’s “Path to Prosperity” looks a blueprint for more congested, crumbling highways — a budget proposal that calls for holding gas taxes flat while somehow maintaining a vast network of rapidly deteriorating roads and bridges.

Paul Ryan's plan for fixing deteriorating infrastructure is cutting funding for trials and trains. Photo: Politico

By way of a solution, Ryan, chair of the House Budget Committee, proposes axing the few cost-effective reform programs that actually have the potential to mitigate runaway costs: bikeways, passenger rail and competitive grant programs like New Starts, which funds transit expansions.

Around the blogs, the plan is getting about the kind of reception you’d expect.

Deron Lovaas at NRDC’s Switchboard blog called it “dogmatic drivel.” Ryan’s plan ignores all evidence that the current system is broken in favor of politically-driven platitudes about spending reduction, said Lovaas.

Ryan says the Highway Trust Fund has to operate based on its existing revenues, which last year totaled about $35 billion. Yet the cost of necessary bridge repair work alone is $80 billion. I agree there’s waste to be trimmed in the program, but simply slashing the budget won’t solve the fundamental issue: our federal transportation program is insolvent.

It’s a difficult thing to talk about, but the hard truth is that our transportation program needs revenue. And that might mean (gasp!) raising the gas tax, which hasn’t been done since 1993, and it might mean (gasp!) cutting out some of the massive subsidies that Big Oil has been treated to over the last few decades. A lot of people don’t have the political guts to make this call, and Ryan, for all his tough talk, appears to be one of them.

Meanwhile, Jonathan Maus at Bike Portland calls the programs Ryan wants to eliminate “nothing more than budget dust.” Maus says the House GOP has targeted the programs that offer the largest return on investment in favor of feeding the highway money pit:

I’m all for cutting spending. A more efficient and lean government is in all of our best interests; but this proposal remains in the dark ages when it refers to “bike trails” as something not worthy of transportation spending and when it continues to stoke the false notion that driving a car can remain as cheap and subsidized as it always has been.

The GOP’s “path” also seeks to end funding of high speed rail, saying its “long-term subsidization” is “infeasible” and that, “high-speed rail and other new intercity rail projects should be pursued only if they can be established as self-supporting commercial services.” I’m all for that rationale, as long as we apply it to all modes. If we did, I’d wager bicycling would be the only mode left standing (or should I say rolling?).

Elsewhere on the Network today: California Streets reports that Google Maps has begun lightly suggesting biking, walking or transit on trips where those modes might be a better choice. Grist carries a graphic breaking down U.S. bicycle use by race and income, debunking the cyclist-as-yuppie-slash-hipster stereotype. And Market Urbanism takes on “antiplanner” Randal O’Toole’s suggestion that Houston’s density is the result of free market preferences rather than government interference.

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