Transportation spending accounts for 2.7%, or $234 billion, of the 2012 proposed federal budget. Only $8.3 billion is slated for the Federal Railroad Administration. Although the White House has stated that its goal over the next 25 years is to give 80% of Americans access to high speed rail, the development of mass and rapid transit systems faces many roadblocks, both financial and cultural.
With the exception of New York City, where 54% of workers commute via public transportation, every metropolitan area in the United States has one preferred means of transportation: the car.
So it should come as no surprise that the Department of Transportation (DOT) allocates the bulk of its budget to the Federal Highway Administration. No one will argue that the nation’s aging transportation infrastructure deserves attention and maintenance, but there is a growing trend towards alternative means of travel.
Transportation expert Matthew Harang, writer and analyst for The Policy Tree, a public policy think tank, said commuters are anxious for transportation alternatives, despite, in many cases, difficult economic conditions.
“We’re going through a tough economic time, but that doesn’t mean we need to stop spending,” said Harang. “We just need to spend on the right things, in the right way,” he said in the latest episode of “Federal Spending,” an online program which aired Nov. 3 and examined some challenges and solutions to keeping the transportation plan – and budget – on track.
He’s talking about public transportation. The bus. The subway. The train.
Some cities are taking advantage of the DOT’s budget. San Bernardino, Calif., received $75 million for a bus rapid transit service; Charlotte, NC was awarded $25 million to begin a street car project; and Denver landed $1 billion to build a commuter rail. In October, the DOT distributed $929 million to transit authorities across the country to modernize their infrastructures. In addition, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 allocated a combined $17.8 billion for transit and rail projects.
“If more people are riding buses, that means less traffic, and that’s key, especially in the L.A. area,” said Harang, a Los Angeles resident. Harang said that the benefits of developing and using public transportation are numerous and range from job creation, to less dependence on foreign oil, to better quality of life.
But even with the advantages, Harang admitted that suburban sprawl and the inconvenience of inadequate routes can hamper the success of public transportation options. “Unless your bus line or your light rail line runs you exactly from your home to your office, you’re pretty much looking at a much longer commute than if you took your car.”
Anthony Sheehan, The Bloor Group’s “Man on the Street” in Washington D.C., said he agrees. “The reason that the subway in New York works so well is that you have an unbelievable concentration of people in Manhattan,” said Sheehan. “The more dispersal, the tougher it is to get a transportation system that is flexible and widespread enough so that it’s convenient to use.”
The east coast leads the way in public transportation and is currently the only region that has an operational high speed rail. The Acela Express, operated by Amtrak, provides service from Washington D.C. to Boston with multiple stops in between. Harang said he hopes the rest of the country will catch up.
“They’re developing one in California as well, but they’ve yet to break ground on that due to, of course, budgeting issues,” Harang said. He added that initial estimates placed the cost around $30 billion had since escalated to about $100 billion. To meet the White House’s goal of ramping up access to rapid transit, Harang said we have a long way to go.
“Seeing that only one rail is completed so far, we’re going to need a lot more funds allocated for the high speed rail if we are to meet that goal,” he said.
With spending oversight at an all time high, however, the DOT must ask itself: If we build it, will they come?
This show is produced by Inside Analysis in conjunction with Breaking Gov. Please share your thoughts on Twitter with #FedSpend. Federal Spending is an apolitical program designed to follow the money, not the politics or personalities. We broadcast Thursdays at Noon ET for an hour. Guests may stream the audio live without registering, or join the WebEx by registering.
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Good Quotes from the Program:
- “Investment in transportation is key to maintaining mobility in the nation.” Harang
- “During this economy right now, everyone’s looking at where we’re spending our money.” Harang
- “People don’t want to see any dollars wasted right now.” Harang
- “A lot of people are looking at the increase that we’re trying to get up to and wondering, where is that money going to come from.” Harang
- “$4.35 billion dollars is certainly a lot of money, but it’s nowhere near enough to get the high speed rail project up and running.” Kavanagh
- Of high speed rail: “They’re developing one in California as well, but they’ve yet to break ground on that due to, of course, budgeting issues. At first they were estimating that the cost would be about $30B, and now it’s somewhere nearing about $100B.” Harang
- “If we can get people to transit alternatives and move people away from their cars, and even on buses that are less fuel efficient, we can try to decrease our dependence on foreign oil.” Harang
- “If more people are riding buses, that means less traffic, and that’s key, especially in the LA area.” Harang
- Of the New Orleans streetcar: “Sometimes the old ideas are the good ideas, and sometimes it really pays to think about what you’re doing.” Kavanagh
- “You’ve got to connect these systems and have them be compatible with each other.” Harang
- “We’re going through a tough economic time, but that doesn’t mean we need to stop spending. We just need to spend on the right things, in the right way.” Harang
- Of Obama’s goal: “We’ve got a long way to go from there. Seeing that only one rail is completed so far, we’re going to need a lot more funds allocated for the high speed rail if we are to meet that goal.” Harang
- “Now, the debate has moved beyond whether the government should spend money on transportation, it’s now what types of transportation.” Sheehan
- “A lot of the high speed rail lines are not really high speed.” Sheehan
- “The Washington D.C. Metro was designed for one thing: to funnel suburban commuters into Washington. The only problems is that most of the jobs in the D.C.area are in the suburbs.” Sheehan
- “It’s too rigid and it’s too de-centralized.” Sheehan, of the reason why the Metro is hopeless
- “I think the reason people don’t use [public transportation] is because it’s too rigid and it doesn’t allow for the flexibility of an automobile.” Sheehan
- “We’re spending money on the wrong things.” Sheehan
- Of the DOT salary: “I suppose that’s actually spending on transportation. How it translates into me getting anywhere else 5 minutes faster than I could, I’m not sure.” Sheehan
- “Most of things that we built in this country-the Holland Tunnel, the Lincoln Tunnel, the rest of that stuff– there was no Department of Transportation when those things were built.” Sheehan
- “Every problem should be dealt with on the lowest possible level.” Sheehan
- “If you get out west, it is just not feasible to use public transportation because it just isn’t there.” Kavanagh
- “People want to be able to get to where they want to go.” Kavanagh
- “If you could work from home, you don’t have to drive your car to work, you don’t have to drive your car home at the end of the day.” Kavanagh
- “I don’t hear a lot of talk about better urban planning and about encouraging companies to help people work from home.” Kavanagh
- “Unless your bus line or your light rail line runs you exactly from your home to your office, you’re pretty much looking at a much longer commute than if you took your car.” Harang
- “The reason that the subway in New York works so well is that you have an unbelievable concentration of people in Manhattan.” Sheehan
- “The more dispersal, the tougher it is to get a public transportation system that is flexible and widespread enough so that it’s convenient to use.” Sheehan
- “Before we demolish something, let’s ask ourselves why we put it up there in the first place.” Sheehan
Good Insights from the Program:
- The federal government covers the vast amount of the cost of highways.
- It will not be easy to fund transportation infrastructure with the budget cuts.
- Transportation accounts for 2.7% of the 2012 proposed federal budget, which is roughly equal to education and job training spending.
- Transportation spending can help create jobs.
- Breakthroughs in mass transit and transit alternatives can lead the US away from dependence on foreign oil, reduce air pollution, and have a positive impact on human health.
- 2009 Actual Budget: $129B
- 2010 Actual Budget: $76B
- 2011 Projected Budget: $76B
- 2012 Requested Budget: $124B
The Top Five:
1. The Federal Highway Administration $70.5B
2. Federal Aviation Administration $22.4B
3. Federal Transit Administration $18.7B
4. Federal Railroad Administration $8.3B (includes high speed rail)
5. Infrastructure Bank $5B (new administration to oversee loans and grants)
- High speed rail is defined as anything that goes over 125 mph.
- The only operational high speed rail is on the east coast (connecting New York and Washington).
- Sen. (D) Barbara Boxer proposed a 2-year $109B for highway and other construction projects. Rep. John Mica (R) proposed $35B per year over 6 years.
- In October, $928M was distributed to transit authorities across the country to modernize infrastructure.
- San Bernardino, CA received $75M for Bus Rapid Transit Service; $25M for Charlotte, NC streetcar project; $1B for commuter rail line in Denver.
- Local transit agencies can apply for up to $175M in grants to use towards transportation alternatives in urban, suburban and rural areas.
- President Obama said that within 25 years, our goal should be to give 80% of Americans access to high speed rail.
- You can now move commodities cheaper by freight train than you can by canal.
- In Europe, the freight trains are shuffled aside to let the high speed passenger rains go by, so the freight costs are higher than they are here.
- In 2008, the DOT had one employee who made over $100K; 18 months later they had 1,690 who made over $100k/year.
- The interstate highway system was built post WWII, and ushered in an era of prosperity.
- The push to “green” is great, but the results need to be tangible.
- Eisenhower used the example of Germany’s autobahns to structure the U.S highways.
- They were designed to transport military vehicles.
Research report by Matt Harang, Rex Brooks and Russell Ruggiero: http://www.thepolicytree.com/The_2011_California_Landscape_(Transportation).pdf
Related article about transportation:
Proposed federal budget for FY 2012:
Includes a six-year, $556 billion surface reauthorization plan to modernize the country’s surface transportation infrastructure, create jobs, and pave the way for long-term economic growth. The President will work with the Congress to ensure that the plan will not increase the deficit. Provides $8 billion in 2012 and $53 billion over six years to reach the President’s goal of providing 80 percent of Americans with convenient access to a passenger rail system, featuring high-speed service, within 25 years.
Budget Highlights with a Pretty Picture, and some interesting word from Obama:
The DOT’s Research and Innovative Technology Administration:
CATO Institute, Proposed cuts to the DOT:
Cool interactive graphic showing projects and funding by location under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009:
A recent article from The Economist:
American Public Transportation Association: