What Happened to Transit in the Stimulus?

Smart Growth America’s state policy director offers an explanation.

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.

Author: Jonathan Zasloff

Jonathan Zasloff teaches Torts, Land Use, Environmental Law, Comparative Urban Planning Law, Legal History, and Public Policy Clinic - Land Use, the Environment and Local Government. He grew up and still lives in the San Fernando Valley, about which he remains immensely proud (to the mystification of his friends and colleagues). After graduating from Yale Law School, and while clerking for a federal appeals court judge in Boston, he decided to return to Los Angeles shortly after the January 1994 Northridge earthquake, reasoning that he would gladly risk tremors in order to avoid the average New England wind chill temperature of negative 55 degrees. Professor Zasloff has a keen interest in world politics; he holds a PhD in the history of American foreign policy from Harvard and an M.Phil. in International Relations from Cambridge University. Much of his recent work concerns the influence of lawyers and legalism in US external relations, and has published articles on these subjects in the New York University Law Review and the Yale Law Journal. More generally, his recent interests focus on the response of public institutions to social problems, and the role of ideology in framing policy responses. Professor Zasloff has long been active in state and local politics and policy. He recently co-authored an article discussing the relationship of Proposition 13 (California's landmark tax limitation initiative) and school finance reform, and served for several years as a senior policy advisor to the Speaker of California Assembly. His practice background reflects these interests: for two years, he represented welfare recipients attempting to obtain child care benefits and microbusinesses in low income areas. He then practiced for two more years at one of Los Angeles' leading public interest environmental and land use firms, challenging poorly planned development and working to expand the network of the city's urban park system. He currently serves as a member of the boards of the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy (a state agency charged with purchasing and protecting open space), the Los Angeles Center for Law and Justice (the leading legal service firm for low-income clients in east Los Angeles), and Friends of Israel's Environment. Professor Zasloff's other major activity consists in explaining the Triangle Offense to his very patient wife, Kathy.