Transit Faces Tough Road Ahead in U.S. Congress

Incoming chair of the U.S. House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure has released his appointments and the results probably didn’t foster much hope among urban transit advocates. None of the Republican appointments represent major urban districts, which means urban transit proponents will have to negotiate creatively if they want to see their priorities implemented.

Under the leadership of former Congressman Jim Oberstar, transit programs and pro-transit policy were on center stage. By their nature, these policies tended to be city-specific and urban centric. Thus, federal spending priorities shifted toward explicit support for urban areas through subsidies for their transit programs and promoting initiatives such as “livability.”

In contrast, the Republican controlled committee will likely shift discussions to transportation policy objectives that are more national in scope and impact. While members will not likely be hostile to the mobility challenges of large urban areas, a healthy dose of skepticism will probably become part of transportation policy discourse. Rather than taking the importance of urban transit and transportation initiatives as important on face value, they are more likely to ask where is the value added to the national transportation network and require these programs be more clearly aligned with national priorities and interests.

Transit and transportation consultant Tom Rubin has this sobering analysis of the Republican committee appointees and a break down organized around representation by the nation’s largest urbanized areas:

  1. NYC-None
  2. LA-None
  3. Chicago-One, but he represents an area about 25 miles due west of downtown Chicago
  4. Miami-None
  5. Philly-None
  6. Atlanta-None
  7. Dallas-Fort Worth-None
  8. Houston-None
  9. Boston-None
  10. Detroit-None

“While it is not particularly surprising that there are not a whole lot of inner city Republicans named,” Rubin wrote on a list serve (and reprinted here with permission), “and so there is no majority member from a core major city, there is only one R from even the suburbs of a top ten UZA, and even he isn’t representing an inner ring suburb.”

Rubin’s quick sketch of the geographic representation of the Republicans:

  • One is from way down in the toe of Indiana, nowhere close to Indianapolis
  • One is best known as the guy who beat Overstar, represents a district about 40 miles North of Minneapolis-St. Paul
  • One represents a very large urbanized area but still far enough away from CBD to call it a suburb
  • One represents a nearly completely rural state
  • One represents a Tennessee town about 75 miles from Memphis
  • One represents a large, mainly agricultural, district east of Columbus, Ohio
  • One is the Mayor of a relatively small city in New Hampshire (large for New Hampshire, but small for most of the U.S.)
  • One represents the Eastern Shore of Maryland and down to, and including, Annapolis on the West Shore but not Baltimore
  • One is from Southwest Washington, including the area directly over the river from Portland, Oregon
  • One represents South Louisiana
  • One represents Oklahoma City, the largest city among the group;
  • One has the Southwest corner of most rural Missouri
  • One represents an area close to Cleveland
  • One represents most of the South Carolina coast, including Charleston

“So,” Rubin concludes, “what we have from this group is one guy from a fairly distant suburb of Chicago — and then the next closest thing to a major urbanized area is Oklahoma City and Charlestown.”

The next two years will certainly be interesting. Don’t look for a lot of long-term certainty or stability in transportation policy unless the Republicans stay in power after November 2012.

The implications for long-term transportation reauthorization are pretty dramatic. Fortunately, this change in emphasis is consistent with Reason Foundation’s framework for reform and probably much more consistent with the fiscal realities faced by the current Congress.