Troubled Atlanta Streetcar may be the Worst Transportation Project Ever Built–Part 4: Using Transportation Funding for Non-transportation Projects
Photo 78594219 © Jerry Coli - Dreamstime.com

Commentary

Troubled Atlanta Streetcar may be the Worst Transportation Project Ever Built–Part 4: Using Transportation Funding for Non-transportation Projects

Last week we provided an overview of the troubled Atlanta Streetcar, gave the depressing history of the project and detailed the role of federal funding in the process. Today, part 4, examines the strategy of using transportation funding to support non-transportation projects.

For more than 200 years of transportation policy in this country we have focused on moving people and goods efficiently between two points. Since the 1950’s that movement has been primarily by vehicle. Rail transit service is effective in the six legacy rail cities (New York, Chicago, Washington DC, Philadelphia, Boston, San Francisco). In most cities bus transit service is an important alternative to cars particularly for lower-income residents, the elderly and disabled who cannot afford or should not be driving a car. To the limited extent that walking or biking are sensible transport choices, they, too are also part of the solution.

Free-market advocates such as Reason often clash with back-to-the-city advocates for cycling and walking over subsidizing those modes. We argue that subsidies are inherently inefficient and that the U.S. should be devoting transportation funds for roadways and to a lesser extent for transit service. But city types could always to point to the fact that some people walked and biked. It wasn’t many people, but it was some.

In 2009, the Obama Administration took control. One of its first acts was to pass the stimulus creating the Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) grants process. The TIGER grants were designed to focus on economic development first, with environmental and community development second, and transportation priorities third.

Streetcars have been a major focus of the TIGER Grants. Yet transportation practitioners realize that streetcars, including the Atlanta Streetcar, are not a form of transportation. The Mineta institute at San Jose State University has detailed how streetcars are primarily development tools driven by land developers and business interests. Average streetcar operating speeds are slower than walking in most cities. In fact, researchers cannot find a single situation in the country where investment in another type of transit would not have been better.

So why has the Obama Administration spent more than 25% of all of the TIGER monies on streetcars, which are not about transportation? The answer is that the Administration has joined with city business interests and politicians focused on ribbon cuttings, not transportation policy, to become fixated on economic development.

Economic development is important for every region of the country. And sound transportation investments lead to economic growth. A new highway opens up land to development. Widening a highway reduces congestion, encouraging business to expand and new businesses to move to an area. Additionally, it allows people to travel further expanding the number of jobs available and providing a better match of employers to employees. Transit provides critical service to the low-income, the disabled and the elderly allowing them to safely access jobs and leisure activities. Many of these residents would otherwise be unable to work and would require government subsidies.

But this push to focus on economic development first and transportation second is backwards. Investing in transportation is what creates economic development; spending transportation resources on economic development boondoggles does not. We don’t use this strategy in other public policy areas. For example, in defense policy we don’t procure tanks by first asking what tank creates the highest number of direct jobs and then order an amphibious tank that is unnecessary and twice the price of a light tank just because it creates 10 more jobs. Instead we buy the tank that fits the mission. The resulting economic development creates the jobs in building and maintenance.

And it’s not just economic development. The administration has made a major push for environmentally-friendly projects such as recreational trails and street diets that inhibit driving. It has supported community development projects including transit service, which makes sense, and projects that limit movement such as closing streets, which makes no sense at all.

The administration’s focus on the environment and on community development is also problematic. Slowing heavily trafficked roads through road diets actually hurts the environment by increasing greenhouse gases (cars emit the most GHGs below 30 miles per hour). Inconvenienced businesses will move to less restrictive parts of town resulting in a loss of jobs for low-income communities.

Many administration critics believe this is to deliberately make driving challenging as possible by overtly favoring cities over suburbs and rural areas. The Obama Administration definitely has changed policy to penalize driving, but if it were really interested in transportation, it wouldn’t have shut down the late Rep. Oberstar’s 2009 anti-car transportation bill. Further, it would have created actual realistic recommendations for the Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century (MAP-21) and FAST Act passed by Congress.

The more likely reality is that the Obama Administration has never had much interest in good transportation policy. The President appointed Ray LaHood who coveted Secretary of Agriculture to Secretary of Transportation instead. LaHood, who told the New York Times that transportation policy was so boring that he needed a strongly caffeinated beverage just to remain awake, never intended to promote solid innovative transportation policy. And thus some in the Executive Branch treated transportation funding as a revenue source for programs originating in the Environmental Protection Agency or the department of Commerce, Housing and Urban Development. Anthony Foxx has tried to undo some of the damage, by creating a long-term USDOT Beyond Traffic plan but the country needs a DOT secretary with a strong transportation background to undo this everything-else first, transportation later approach to transportation policy.

Baruch Feigenbaum is senior managing director of transportation policy at Reason Foundation and lead author of Reason's Annual Highway Report.