RBC is pleased to welcome Will Schroeer, state policy director of Smart Growth America, for some thoughts on the death of transit in the stimulus:
Along with many, I’ve been deeply disappointed in how the transportation portion of the stimulus changed from what came out of Oberstar’s House T&I into what came out of Obey’s House Approps last week, apparently with the blessing of the (then-) incoming Administration. The differences, and in particular the fact that transit got substantially cut, but roads did not, has been well-covered elsewhere. There are two stories out about why. Oberstar is on record as saying it was to make room for tax cuts. The other story is that Obama’s economics team looked at the data, and concluded that road spending provides a faster stimulus than does transit spending, and so cut the transit. (Note that the two stories aren’t mutually exclusive.)
Two aspects of this story stand out:
First, what data would one look at to make such a judgment? One place is US DOT, which tracks how long it takes federal money to be spent. In fact, road money moves out of FHWA faster than transit money moves out of FTA. But there’s no physical reason why that is so; it’s a purely political outcome of the last eight years, during which Bush sought to speed for road projects, and slow transit. I don’t know that those are the data the Obama crew are looking at, but there is a very clear concern in a number of programs about the ability of federal programs to move stimulus money, let alone states to actually spend it. Wouldn’t it be a shame if Bush-era disinterest in transit ends up knee-capping transit at the start of the Obama era?
Second, transit can often act as a faster stimulus than roads. Transit ridership around the country has continued to rise despite moderating gas prices, yet transit agencies from coast to coast are announcing doomsday budgets of service cuts and fare hikes. The most shovel-ready project in the country is simply stopping those cuts and hikes. The buses are on the street, the people trained. You don’t need to buy any right of way or gravel; all money goes straight to wages for transit workers, and/or the pocketbooks of commuters. It saves people (riders) money immediately, multiplying the effect in a way that construction will not do soon (if ever, but that’s a longer argument). In doing so, it helps workers in many industries, not just construction and engineering. Finally, it’s stupid to build transit lines (there’s still some money for new transit in the Obey bill) at the same time you are driving riders away by gutting their service & raising their fares.
So it’s especially troubling that while House Approps reduced most of the transit numbers from Oberstar’s proposal, it eliminated transit operating assistance altogether.