Commentary

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.

Samuel R. Staley, Ph.D. is a senior research fellow at Reason Foundation and managing director of the DeVoe L. Moore Center at Florida State University in Tallahassee where he teaches graduate and undergraduate courses in urban planning, regulation, and urban economics. Prior to joining Florida State, Staley was director of urban growth and land-use policy for Reason Foundation where he helped establish its urban policy program in 1997.

Staley is the author of several books, most recently co-authoring Mobility First: A New Vision for Transportation in a Globally Competitive 21st Century (Rowman & Littlefield, 2008). Texas Gov. Rick Perry aid Staley and Moore "get it right" and world bank urban planner Alain Bartaud called it "a must read for urban managers of large cities in the United States and around the world."

He is also co-author, with Ted Balaker, of The Road More Traveled: Why The Congestion Crisis Matters More Than You Think, and What We Can Do About It (Rowman and Littlefield, September, 2006). Author Joel Kotkin said, "The Road More Traveled should be required reading not only for planners and their students, but anyone who loves cities and wants them to thrive as real places, not merely as museums, in the 21st Century." Former U.S. Secretary of Transportation Mary Peters said, "Balaker and Staley clearly debunk the myth that there is nothing we can do about congestion."

Staley's previous book, Smarter Growth: Market-based Strategies for Land-use Planning in the 21st Century (Greenwood Press, 2001), was called the "most thorough challenge yet to regional land-use plans" by Planning magazine.

In addition to these books, he is the author of Drug Policy and the Decline of American Cities (Transaction Publishers, 1992) and Planning Rules and Urban Economic Performance: The Case of Hong Kong (Chinese University Press, 1994).

His more than 100 professional articles, studies, and reports have appeared in publications such as The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Investor's Business Daily, Journal of the American Planning Association, Planning magazine, Reason magazine, National Review and many others.

Staley's approach to urban development, transportation and public policy blends more than 20 years of experience as an economic development consultant, academic researcher, urban policy analyst, and community leader.

Staley is a former chair for his local planning board in his hometown of Bellbrook, Ohio. He is also a former member of its Board of Zoning Appeals and Property Review Commission, vice chair of his local park district's open space master plan committee, and chair of its Charter Review Commission.

Staley received his B.A. in Economics and Public Policy from Colby College, M.S. in Social and Applied Economics from Wright State University, and Ph.D. in Public Administration, with concentrations in urban planning and public finance from Ohio State University.