STiRRing things up in transportation … for the worse

Apologies if I offend some, but the current transportation bills moving through Congress stink. The House of Representatives’ Surface Transportation Reauthorization and Reform (STRR) Act—just introduced last week and being debated this week in Committee – is bad for transportation in America. Despite our desperation for funding to keep buses and trains running, and improve the condition of our roads it’s not a good bill. The tragedy is that states, cities, transit agencies, chambers of commerce, developers, and advocates have rightly been calling on Congress for the last 6 years to adequately fund transportation.

We are a desperate yet tenacious group. We’ve seen the tenacity turn into new ways to fund transportation with states and local voters stepping up to tax themselves, and private investors partnering with public agencies in new ways. And we even smiled when MAP-21 was passed in 2012 despite the fact that it failed to deliver much of the funding and policy change necessary to honestly meet the needs of the 21st Century. Desperation is not a good position for writing policy.

The current reauthorization bills fall so short of what American people and businesses need and want to see that it’s hard to believe the STRR Act was crafted in 2015. Maybe this isn’t a surprise given the Congress we have, but I find it depressing and disappointing that no one seems to be calling this what it is: the emperor has no clothes, or the emperor is a bully.  Progressive transportation advocates are silent and the transportation industry seems to simply be pinching its nose and trying to improve some of the worst provisions. I can forgive this of AASHTO and APTA, their members are desperate for federal money. You can even see a few small provisions to appease Labor re: transit safety, workforce development and Buy America. But my progressive friends? Not so much. In fact, I’ve only seen one skeptical voice in the wilderness ... an excellent blog by NRDC's Deron Lovas last summer who calls out the harmful environmental provisions in the Senate’s version of the Drive Act. The House bill, of course, goes further. (Note: since I posted my blog, T4America has come out with its analysis.)

So what do I find so distasteful? Here’s a few of the more egregious STRR provisions:

  • Stop saying the word Safety, and then propose funding that makes us less safe.

Each recent transportation bill includes numerous provisions focused on safety, providing Congress the opportunity to talk about its commitment to safety. Back in 2005, safety was literally the transportation bill’s name: SAFETEA-LU. Yet what I find rather shocking, especially from a Republican Congress is that apparently safety is only about regulation. Each year more layers are added to the regulatory onion, with MAP-21 creating an entirely new safety regulatory role for the Federal Transit Administration (FTA). Yet when we look at the numbers killed on our transportation network: roughly 33,000 people die on roads each year, and less than 270 die on transit.[1] What would make people safer? Well, one solution could be to ensure they have access to safe, reliable and frequent transit. What makes transit safe? When the system is maintained. We’ve been tragically reminded of this in Metropolitan Washington DC where failure to maintain track, buy new and safer cars, and to adequately invest in training and communications cost people their lives. We can pretend the answer is more regulation, but really the answer is funding. Two years ago, FTA estimated that more than 40 percent of buses and 25 percent of rail transit assets in this country were in marginal or poor condition with an estimated $86 billion backlog in deferred maintenance and replacement needs. Since then, this backlog has grown. This is NOT safe. This is not sustainable. This is not even cost effective as deferred costs have a way of increasing. Yet what does STRR do? It fails to provide any growth in funding for the core formula transit program or for state of good repair. What’s more, it maintains an 80% federal share for State of Good Repairs, but requires the local match be funded from “ (in cash) non-Government sources other than revenues from providing public transportation services; advertising or concessions revenues; an undistributed cash surplus, a replacement or depreciation cash fund or reserve, or new capital; or amounts appropriated or otherwise made available to a department or agency of the Government (other than the Department of Transportation) that are eligible to be expended for transportation.“ This is just ridiculous. Asking more for less is not improving safety.

  • Stop saying Streamlining, and then fail to adequately fund federal agencies to do the work you now require of them.

Even more than safety, Congress loves to talk about streamlining, particularly as it relates to environmental provisions. The last bill, MAP-21, had 30 pages of such provisions but STRR takes it further "gutting the public's ability to comment or even know what transportation projects are going forward in their neighborhood."  While numerous studies have pointed out that project delays are more often the result of lack of local funding, NIMBYism, or poor project design our national environmental protections remain a favorite target. I’ll leave the environmental debate to others, but do want to point out one very practical place Congress could address to help “streamline” the process and that is to adequately equip USDOT with the staff needed to conduct reviews. Over the years, I’ve heard countless stories, especially in working with FTA, where there were long delays in getting required federal approval of environmental documents.

This makes sense when you consider the federal transit program has grown from roughly $3.4 billion in 1987 to over $10 billion in 2015. Yet during this same time, the size of the FTA has remained roughly the same with around 500 employees. So, MAP-21 added an entirely new and rather significant regulatory role on safety but did not increase the number of personnel to carry this out. And while FHWA has roughly 2,900 employees (for 50 state grantees, with most of its funding being distributed by formula), FTA must make due with a fraction of that; despite having 900 direct grantees and thousands of sub-grant recipients. I’m no mathematician, but my gut tells me that 500 people managing thousands of grants and now managing an entirely new safety program probably means that important work may not be getting done since there are still only 24 hours in a day.  Streamlined staffing doesn’t equate to a streamlined process, especially when it’s getting more complicated and new regulations and guidance are needed with each change in law.

Stop saying Local Flexibility, and then attach provisions that tie the hands of local government.

The third most often heralded statement by Congressional transportation authorizers we hear every bill is “local flexibility” and this time it’s no different. The STRR Act summary produced by the Committee includes the boast that the bill “Provides more flexibility and decision-making to state and local governments to allow them to better align their priorities and needs.” I’m not sure what they think backs up this claim, other than a few provisions like allowing state DOTs to flex funds for bridge repair.  Rather, it seems to me they are doing just the opposite.

First, there is still no funding for localities but rather the state DOT remains the primary recipient and controller of federal transportation dollars. OK, I wasn’t really expecting that change despite repeated requests by America’s mayors for this authority.

But what IS really hypocritical is that the bill includes several provisions (wait for it …. ) in the Transit Title that prohibit local decision making and flexibility. Specifically, federal funds cannot be used to pay incremental costs of incorporating art or landscaping into transit facilities, including the costs of an artist on the design team. The bill adds a special rule prohibiting USDOT from reducing or eliminating the capital costs of art and landscaping elements from the annualized capital cost calculation.

Yes, we wouldn’t want to have well-designed, attractive, safe, or environmentally-sensitive transit stations where people are standing, walking or waiting. Mayors like to have new transit stations in the middle of neighborhoods that are ugly, unwelcoming and contribute to stormwater run-off, right? Even more short-sighted, the bill prohibits localities from flexing highway funds to use as a source of local match for State of Good Repair projects. It also caps the total federal share for a new start program restricting the ability some places like Portland have used to flex highway funds to help expand light rail.  This is as flexible as a straight-jacket.

  • Stop under funding transit.

My final beef with this bills probably comes as no surprise, but still I have to say it. Why does Congress not adequately fund transit? No city in America has built out its long-range transit plan. Services are still being cut and fares raised in too many places, and as the growing demand for housing near transit indicates more people want to live near and use good transit. When you add the fact that 10,000 baby boomers are retiring each day we need to recognize that more people are going to need better transportation options when they may no longer be able, or want, to drive.

Yet the STRR act provides little in the way of new transit funding. According to APTA, “The House bill generally assumes baseline funding for the federal transit program over the six-year authorization period.  Overall, it increases transit funding by just under 2 percent in year one, just under 6 percent over three years, and 12.4 percent over the life of the bill.  In comparison, the Senate DRIVE Act increases the program by just under 9 percent in year one, 14.6 percent over three years, and by 25 percent over the life of the bill.” This sounds good, but remember that right now Congress has any idea how to fund the bill, at best beyond the first three years. So in reality, transit hopefully doesn’t lose ground though we know that costs for operating, building and maintaining service will only grow.

Added to this, the STRR Act would codify the policy of only providing a 50% federal share for new transit projects. Some argue that this has been the practice by appropriators in recent years so maybe it’s not a big deal. But put this in perspective, the entire highway system was funded at a 90-80% match. The reason we’ve had a lower federal match in practice is that the demand so far outstrips the supply of transit funding that the feds are trying to stretch dollars. This may mean that wealthier communities and those where transit has already been built to create market demand will probably be able to pay their way. Lower-income communities and those who would like to finally get their first streetcar, light rail or bus rapid transit may be out of luck though.

So, to recap: the STRR bill is not good for the environment, does not genuinely address safety and maintenance needs, is not good for social equity, does not adequately fund our transportation system and is not great for the economy. I’ll just say it …. I’d rather have yet another continuing resolution of the current bill than go down the STRR path for the next 6 years. America needs and deserves better. Congress needs to keep stirring until they get it right. 


[1] Sadly, a high percentage of transit fatalities are from suicides.