Why the feds like pavement but not rails

So what’s the difference between highways and transit?

No, it’s not that transit gets subsidies. Highways do, too. In fact, every mode of transportation but pipelines and freight rail does. Federal and state highways are funded by gas tax. But freeways, expressways, and major arterials — the kinds of roads which are federal and state highways — account for less than half of vehicle miles traveled nationwide. The rest of the roadways are paid for out of county and city general funds. The second largest transportation budget in the Houston area comes from Harris County property tax. So if you’re driving on a local road, you’re subsidizing highways, and if you have a home or a business, you’re subsidizing local roads. There’s nothing wrong with that. But it’s important to realize that no form of passenger transportation pays its own way, even if you leave out private subsidies and indirect costs.

What is different, though, is how the federal and state government fund highways and transit. The difference at the state level is obvious: the state does not finance transit. If you’re a city or county looking for state funds, and the best solution for your particular transportation problem is transit, too bad. You get a road. The difference at the federal level is less obvious. But the bottom line is that it’s much easier to get highway funding than it is to get transit funding.

An article in this morning’s Chronicle highlights the differences well. The North and Southeast METRORail lines, which have completed their environmental process, have a contractor selected, are ready to break ground, and are slatred to be done in 3 years, are not “shovel ready.” But the Grand Parkway segment E (as seen in the New York Times), which even its supporters admit has been rushed, which has not completed environmental clearances, and which does not have a contractor selected is “shovel ready.” And oh, yeah, it’s a stupid project with no real transportation benefit. But it will get stimulus money.

So what’s the difference between the Grand Parkway and METRORail? Why are they treated differently? Because they’re funded by two different agencies. The best explanation I’ve heard (and unfortunately I can’t remember the source) is that the Federal Highway Administration thinks it’s in the business of helping states get highways built, while the Federal Transit Administration think it’s in the business of making sure agencies don’t spend too much on transit projects. That difference in attitude permeates everything the two agencies do.

Here’s how federal highway funding works: every state gets a certain amount of money by a national formula. That state then determines how it wants to spend the money and tells FHWA; FHWA sends checks. By federal law, an environmental impact study is required. But FHWA is pretty lax on those; major projects like the widening of 610 are routinely characterized as exempt from the environmental projects, and many of the biggest environmental impacts from highways don’t have to be considered. Everyone knows that the biggest impact of the Grand Parkway will be the paving over of large portions of the Katy Prairie, prime wildlife habitat and a “sponge” for floodwaters, to build new subdivisions. But the environmental study was able to claim that development would have happened anyway, and the FHWA agreed.

The most crucial omission from the federal highway funding process, though, is any kind of cost-effectiveness requirement. The FHWA does not care how much transportation benefit will come from your project, whether the same benefit could have come from building a cheaper project in the same corridor, or whether another project elsewhere has better bang for the buck. If the state thinks it’s a good idea, it gets funded. And with “the state,” I mean a 5-member commission appointed by the governor. In fact, state departments of transportation were explicitly structured in the Progressive Era to avoid political oversight.

And, oh, yeah, the feds pay 80% of highway project costs.

Now consider FTA funding for new projects. Every project has to start with an Alternatives Analysis which has to consider cheaper modes like Bus Rapid Transit. Only after the FTA has approved this document can the project start the environmental process. After the environmental process there’s another process, not required by law but instituted by the FTA, to determine the risk of projects running over schedule or budget. And once you’re done with all that you’re still not guaranteed funding. Instead, you’re up against a lot of other projects, and every project gets rated on the basis of its cost-effectiveness, its benefits, its environmental impacts, and the financial stability of the transit agency. If you don’t score high enough, you get no money. Even if you do, the FTA may arbitrarily decide not to fund you. And meanwhile, you have members of Congress trying to block certain projects (it happened to us, it happened to LA, it even happened to Seattle because of congressmen from Oklahoma and Kentucky.)

So you make it through all that? The feds give you 50% funding.

The federal transportation funding bill is due for reauthorization this year. We now have a president who’s talking about the need for building more sustainable communities, a secretary of transportation who’s working on coordinating transportation planning with land use planning, and a House transportation chairman who’s been outspoken is his support for transit. This bill is a chance to fix the fundamental flaws in the federal funding process. Hopefully, the final result will treat all modes equally. It’s hard to build a good transportation system otherwise.

Despite being financially stable, cost-effective, and very accountable, our forums get no federal funds. So you won’t have to analyze the environmental impact of your comments.

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