Bad Defunding

The furor in the transit blogosphere about the House Republicans’ transportation bill proposal, defunding the Mass Transit Account and diverting the money to roads in order to shore up the Highway Trust Fund, deserves more scrutiny from the point of view of government effectiveness. Although the proposed defunding is clearly political and cultural (to many Tea Party Republicans, trains and buses are for hippies), the way in which it is done is a good reminder about what’s going on in US politics. The principle is that when government does not work, the people in government who propose to get rid of it are part of the same ineffective governance structure.

First, consider some recent projects or proposals for projects to expand transit. In Houston, as noted by rail critic Tory Grattis, of the four proposed light rail lines, the first two to be built are the less cost-effective two, while the more compelling Universities Line is saved for later. In Los Angeles, the Foothills Extension is being built before the Westside Subway. And the first California HSR contract to be tendered is for the northernmost initial construction segment, the segment that should be first on the chopping block if necessary to divert money to the more important Los Angeles-Bakersfield mountain crossing. In order to prevent smart scope changes from leaving the cost-ineffective parts out, the planners take the cost-effective lines hostage in order to make sure that they are built.

The same is true in the opposite direction. It was not so clear up until now because the big-ticket rail cancellations all involved just one major project per governor, but now that the Republicans are bundling all transit together, the pattern looks clearer. There is no accounting for good and bad projects here. Even cost-effective projects such as Second Avenue Subway would lose funds they need for completion. The goal is not to cut government waste; it’s to cut spending on people who the people who proposed the bill find distasteful, and the effect of quality of government services is about what you’d expect of any politicized government program.

It’s for the same reason that I think very little of Chris Christie’s ideas about transportation management, despite my criticism of ARC. Although some of the rumors floated suggest that the depth of the cavern was one of the things that made Christie think the project was ridiculous, he made no effort to try fixing it. Instead, he canceled the project, trumpeted it as a cost saving measure, and proceeded to spend more money on freeways. Aaron Renn, hardly an orthodox leftist (he is a fan of Mitch Daniels), compared him to Chainsaw Al and called his style of governance kindergarten-level.

In analogy with technical and political transit supporters, there are technical and political road supporters. The technicals exist, in various driver magazines that support spending more money on maintenance and less on expansion, and do not mind raising tolls or gas taxes to pay for infrastructure. But the politicians do not care about cost-effectiveness, and have no problems supporting Big Dig-style projects. At the risk of overinterpreting blog comments, let me say that every road supporter I have seen express an opinion on the Big Dig thinks that it was a necessary project and should have been built regardless of the cost (for the record, $15 billion for what to the best of my understanding is about 200,000 cars per day). The thinktanks that support them care more about finding ways to convince people to want to pay more money for expensive freeways rather than about cutting the cost of construction or reducing environmental impacts.

Thus the House transportation bill is bad not only because it’s bad for transit, but also because it’s bad government. It’s not even selective worrying about cost-effectiveness, a charge often thrown by political transit supporters. It makes no attempt to decouple any funding from gas taxes, a decoupling that it necessary for the purpose of making it possible to tax pollution without demands from both APTA and the AASHTO that the revenues raised be plugged back into transportation. It makes no attempt to let go of projects that cost too much while maintaining those whose cost is adequate. It’s purely an exercise in muscle-flexing, a continuation of the US practice of not having a transportation policy that’s separate from the usual political and lobby bickering.


  1. Zmapper

    In a way, I almost have to agree with what the House Republicans are doing. Over the last 50 years, the federal government has created a monstrosity where localities send their money to Washington, they spend it on other things, and you have to fight to get it back based on how many favored politicians you elect.

    If transit (and roads) were a local matter with the federal government and their cronies OUT of funding, the incentive to build Taj Mahal stations and Commuter Rail to nowhere goes away. Now cities and states have to fully analyze whether the project is worth it, because they are paying for it. Small stuff, like frequency and service-span would be improved first before investing in capital projects.

    Back a few years ago, the city manager of my city, Fort Collins, called federal funding “free money”. Um, HELLO! Just where do you think the “free money” comes from, anyway! Here is a hint: taxpayers.

    And remember, if there is no federal government involved, there is no Buy America or other FTA nonsense.

    • Beta Magellan

      Interestingly enough, when you mentioned “no more commuter rail” the most recent line I could think of that was built without federal funds was Denton’s commuter line, which has (according to APTA) 1500 riders—the line was projected to have 4-5,000 riders and cost $320 million. The other main example I could think of was the initial phase of Baltimore’s light rail line, which was initially built mostly along former interurban ROW (i. e. away from ridership draws like Johns Hopkins) and was single-tracked, limiting headways to 17 minutes. Although I don’t know anything about its initital ridership, now that the line’s been double-tracked it also underperforms—in terms of riders per mile it’s on the low end of US light rail ridership (especially if we ignore all the heritage trolley-type systems clogging the bottom of that list).

      From these examples I’d conclude (while it’s not good methodology to draw on a sample of two, this is a just blog comment so I’ll do it any) that when a government’s using local funding for transit, most of the focus is going to be on low-hanging fruit that give people rail at a low total cost, regardless of effectiveness—although the start-up costs of Denton and Baltimore’s initial light rail line may not have been all that high, on a per-passenger both cost (and continue to cost, thanks to low ridership densities) a fortune. For big projects that have low costs-per-passenger—like the SAS and LA Purple Line extension—it’s harder for smaller units of government (which have fewer avenues of financing at their disposal) to get past the initial sticker shock.

      Local and state governments don’t typically look at cost-effectiveness either—if we’re to believe the Baltimore Light Rail wikipedia page, part of the impetus for the initial line was to provide a transit link to the new Oriole Park—not necessarily the best use of transit money. Although I’m not sure about the situation in Fort Collins, cities like Baltimore, Chicago, New York, and many others have no problem spending their own money on clout- or vanity-based projects—indeed, when the FTA started giving greater weight to local financing commitment, bad projects like the Silicon Valley BART Central Subway in San Francisco and SunRail in Orlando were boosted up a level in their cost-effectiveness ratings. They may be bad projects, but since they’re bad projects local boosters and power-brokers were willing to pay for they’re happening nonetheless.

      So, in the end I’m not sure the removing carrot of federal funding will be a net positive for transit—if it were to happen, there would have to be a redoubling of local pressure for good transit and honest evaluations of cost-effectiveness. We can’t assume that will happen on its own.

      • Zmapper

        The project that I was thinking of when I wrote the comment was the Mason Corridor in Fort Collins. It is a busway that has been in planning from the ’90s, and may be built this year.

        For those observing from 1000 miles away, the Mason Corridor is a busway one block west of College Ave, the cities busiest street with the second busiest bus route in the system. The 1-College, the bus the Mason Corridor will replace, runs every 20 minutes 6a-7p M-Sa and has about 1500 passenger-trips daily. The Mason Corridor will be every 10 minutes 6a-10p M-Sa with an optimistic projected ridership of roughly 5000 passenger-trips in 2025. The projected total cost will be $82 million, split 80% Federal Government, 20% Local.

        Now, why can’t they just increase the frequency of the existing 1-College to 10 minutes and run it later before jumping to a separated busway? The answer lies with how transit projects are funded in the US; capital projects are subsidized while operating projects aren’t. Because of that, we have to wait until 2014 to see later bus service or possibly Sunday service, because Transfort is waiting for a check from the federal government.

        To make the situation worse, most bus routes in the system are hourly. It takes a full hour or more to cross the city while the same trip by car would be 15 minutes. Priority number one should be to improve the system-wide frequency to every 30 minutes at a minimum, not embark on expensive boondoggles. FTA funds can’t be used for basic improvements; they must be used only on capital projects with ribbon cuttings.

        Side note: As of last weekend, the most frequent route in the city doesn’t run during rush hours. No, it runs at 1am to shuttle drunks back home! If that isn’t a sign of a dysfunctional system, I don’t know what is.

        Links: Existing bus route:
        Mason Corridor:

        • Beta Magellan

          With the caveat I know nothing about Fort Collins beyond wikipedia, Google Maps and your comments and links, that proposal does seem a bit odd and needlessly complicated—more basic improvements on College definitely seem like they would make more sense. That said, I’m not surprised that Fort Collins doesn’t have strong peak-period ridership—it’s really small. I know choice riders in Milwaukee, the smallest metro area I’ve ever lived in, but they either live, work and spend their free time in dense areas with expensive or inconvenient parking or have highway commutes that are just long and painful enough that they’d rather sit on a freeway flyer and get some while sitting in traffic in their own cars. In Fort Collins it looks like there’s some parking pressure downtown, but not in any of the surrounding neighborhoods, nor does it look large enough to have that much of a crunch a peak. It’s generally pretty hard for transit to be competitive in small cities—especially when most people have a car—so it doesn’t really surprise me that people are mainly taking public transport when their vision’s blurred.

          Still, I’m a bit leery of having the Feds fund operations, outside of stepping in during an a recession to keep cuts to the bone from happening. Just as federal funding for capital projects can blind municipalities to cost-effectiveness, federal funding of operations can blind them to that as well. Even if your municipality does a good job of keeping costs and productivity under control (I know Denver has—don’t know about FC) it could still go wrong in the same way capital projects has—funding increases in coverage (more service to more electoral districts, rather than better service to the most transit-appropriate districts) rather than frequency. Either way good planning and advocacy’s required.

          • Zmapper

            There isn’t much traffic congestion in town, other than a few areas. Eastbound Horsetooth between Meadowlark and JFK can be a bit slow during rush hours, because there is a traffic light every block and an active railroad crossing. Harmony Road between Lemay and Timberline is also a hot spot, but the street (or stroad) is extremely bike, ped, and transit unfriendly there isn’t much to do about it. College Avenue has some congestion during rush hour, but it still remains tolerable and according to city reports travel times have actually been decreasing since 2006.

            Parking is easy enough, the Parking Ramp downtown is empty most of the time and you will likely find an on street space if you look hard enough. CSU, on the other hand, is a mess with finding parking. A week ago I went to a Ron Paul rally on campus, but had to park about 1/2 mile away simply because of everyone else driving.

            The buses that service CSU are heavily used during rush hour; one route carries 200 passengers hourly. In 2008, the system-wide average load was 26 passengers per hour per bus, which isn’t too bad for a suburban area.

            One thing that Colorado as a whole does well is keeping construction costs low, if you ignore the PRT luggage fiasco at DEN. An intersection in Loveland, 8 miles south of Fort Collins, was reconstructed into a CFI for $4 million, which is rather reasonable. RTD in Denver is of course the leader with construction management; the SE light rail expansion opened under budget and 2 years early.

            Transit Systems serving areas under 200,000 people do get some federal funding for operations. It isn’t much but it is something. Transfort received 10% of its revenue from federal sources according to the FTA.

    • Nathanael Nerode

      If you did this with everything, you might have a point.

      You would also have abolished the federal government.

      I wouldn’t mind that at this point; without having to support the bloated contractor trough which is the Department of Defense, New York would be in much better shape.

      But the “red states”, which except for Wyoming, Utah, and Nebraska are largely dependent on federal handouts (from money paid by “blue state” taxpayers) — see recent Krugman — would be pretty unhappy.

      • Adirondacker12800

        Upstate New York, for that matter New York City itself, used to be fairly well larded with defense contractors and bases. But then mysteriously they began to consolidate to red states just like they did in California… Odd isn’t it?….

        • Zmapper

          Notice how there is a base located in every state. Makes it rather convenient for politicians to vote against cutting overseas war spending because they don’t want to hurt their constituents.

          The most likely reason military operations are moving to the red states is because they don’t have as many people, thus reducing impact if a mishap or theoretical terrorist attack were to occur. Where would you rather put the Air Force missiles: Outside Cheyenne, Wyoming in the middle of nowhere or at 42rd Street and 5th Avenue, New York?

  2. DingDong

    Alon, good stuff. But it’s hard to imagine the alternative: how can we separate policy from politics? I imagine you would support transfer of more decisions about funding to apolitical administrators, but
    (1) it’s extremely hard to imagine how that would happen, given the current US political structure, with relatively weak party discipline and regional representation on a first-past-the-post system; short of going to a parliamentary system, preferably with party list voting, how are you going to keep politics out of low and medium-level decisions?

    (2) even if you get elected representatives hands out of the day-to-day and even mid-level decisions (and even if you are not going to be concerned about the inevitable complaints about the democratic accountability of agency decisionmakers), you have to worry then about a whole other sets of problems related to agency capture or plain incompetence; do you think the FRA is working well?


    (3) your complaints are not just about politics being involved low and medium level decisions, but even at the very highest levels (e.g., how much to spend on transit in the next five years). I can’t even imagine any set of institutional reforms that would make such decisions apolitical or, short of that, the subject of a more intelligent kind of politics. Politics is messy, but we’re to a large degree stuck with it.

    This said, I would be very curious to learn about the institutional arrangements in countries that seem generally to make more rational decisions about transportation policy. Who, exactly, decides which TGV lines to build? Why is Stuttgart 21 unstoppable, while in US the opposition would easily have found a veto point somewhere along the way?

    • Adirondacker12800

      do you think the FRA is working well?

      The FRA has many missions. They are doing a stellar job when it comes to freight ..expect for things like having to paint an F on the front of the locomotive.

      • DingDong

        I think that makes my point, although in a different way. When there are multiple missions, isn’t it an inherently political question which to prioritize?

    • Andre Lot

      In regard of making projects “non-stoppable”, what happens is that in certain countries there are administrative courts that have the ultimate say in whether a project can proceed on its merits or not. Once that approval is given, it is virtually impossible for anyone to challenge the project itself on some “last-minute ditch” legal action.

      that comes because the concept of general nuisance, for instance, is far weekle protected than in US, UK and Australia, for instance.

  3. EngineerScotty

    This many sound like a tautology, but it’s a point I’ve made before and its worth repeating. In the US, transportation is politicized because transit is political. That is–for various reasons good and bad, the different ideological factions in the US (and their expression in the form of political parties) have staked out ideological positions on the issue of transportation, positions which trump any sort of technical analysis, and thus the issue becomes a political football. Many Republicans consider any and all transit projects to be indefensible, and many on the left have the same view of freeways, no matter where and when.

    Compare this with other types of public infrastructure, such as sewerage. There’s often complaints when a densifying area is converted from septic tanks or cesspools to a public sewer system, mainly focusing around the cost of doing so (which is generally imposed on specific homeowners, a practice I consider unfortunate but not relevant to the present topic), and occasionally arguments over whether sewer systems should be publicly or privately run–but overall, the subject of how to deal with sewage is not something which has become an ideological shibboleth. I’m not aware of any arguments that either a) common sewer systems, water systems, and other similar urban infrastructure constitutes socialism and should be avoided by “real Americans”; or conversely that b) septic systems should never be built, even in rural areas, and that folks who choose to live in the country need to invest in a shovel. There’s widespread agreement that in cities (and even medium-density suburbia) you build sewers, and in rural areas, on-site septic tanks are a perfectly appropriate and sanitary way to dispose of human waste.

    • DingDong

      Interesting, but isn’t transportation political in at least two ways. (1) As you suggest, gor whatever reason, in the US, transportation, unlike sewage, is tied up with ideology (2) ideology aside, you can always demand more better, transportation for your region, so politicians are always trying to ensure their involvement in transportation policy, while they are quite happy to pass wastewater off to the technocrats. Once you have a wastewater system in place that’s appropriate to your area, no one (voters, politicians) really wants more. It’s there and it works. With transportation, you can always want a new freeway or a better rail line or whatever. So it’s seems like, even putting the strange ideological configurations of US politics aside, transportation is going to be inescapably political.

      • EngineerScotty

        Perhaps one difference is that sewage systems generally work “well enough” to not be an issue most of the time–you flush the toilet and the crap goes away, and most problems are with residential plumbing and not the community-provided sewage system. Transportation, however, is frequently inflicted with traffic jams, car wrecks, late, crowded, or infrequent busses, poor walking environments, and the like.

      • Eric

        In the US, transit vs highways is tied into other highly contested issues, particularly social equity vs (perceived) small government and individualism. I think that is the main issue.

    • Adirondacker12800

      but overall, the subject of how to deal with sewage is not something which has become an ideological shibboleth.

      Define sewage. There’s enormous fights over what to do with feedlot waste. Most places you can’t dump the drainage from your multi acre parking lot into the nearest stream anymore. That’s a big fight. ‘Round these parts people have discovered that their “cheap” septic system isn’t so cheap when it’s been in use for 50, 60, 70 years and needs to be moved. Or discover it was quite adequate when the house was being used on the weekends but not so adequate when it’s been winterized and in daily use year round. They see the charms of central sewers and water.
      … How many times did New Jersey have to take New York City to court before New York City stopping flushing into the East and North Rivers? I seem to remember a brouhaha over Boston’s sewage in the 1988 election.

      • EngineerScotty

        Even so, MOST of those fights aren’t ideological, with one political party defending the right of New Yorkers to dump sewage into the Hudson and its tributaries as a matter of principle, and the other opposing. The issue of feedlots has been politicized a bit more, with several ideological factions within the Democratic caucus (environmentalists, animal-rights) lining up against.

        • Nathanael Nerode

          Elected Republican Party officials have in fact defended the right to dump sewage in the river as a matter of principle.

          Never expect them to be sane. Never.

    • Nathanael Nerode

      “I’m not aware of any arguments that either a) common sewer systems, water systems, and other similar urban infrastructure constitutes socialism and should be avoided by “real Americans”;”
      You’re not up to date. Republicans are in fact making such arguments — arguing that all water systems and sewer systems should be run by private, for-profit companies, because anything else is “soshulisum”.

      Never overestimate the Republican Party. It is completely insane.

  4. Beta Magellan

    One thing that’s worth noting is that a lot of our big beefs with the FTA deal with the ways it measures cost-effectiveness. As far as I know, though, much (if not all) of the decision-making about what constitutes “cost-effective” are made within the executive branch and reflect the policy preferences of the presidential administration.

    • Alon Levy

      I have a post in the pipeline about that, specifically about the problems inherent in the new-riders metric, as opposed to just ridership. In a city without rapid population growth, mass transit is not going to get many new riders, but it could build out a system to retain existing riders by giving them an option that’s not very bad. Portland’s transit mode share has been flat since MAX opened, but that of other US cities of Portland’s size went down. Of course, a city could have a transit revival raising mode shares, but that’s excrutiatingly slow – the fastest I know is growth of about 0.5 percentage points in the mode share per year.

      • Zmapper

        Boulder, Colorado has managed to experience a 400% bus ridership growth in about the last 15-20 years simply by improving frequency and service span. Meanwhile, as you state Portland with their expensive MAX stayed flat, and the rest of the nation that won’t make basic improvements stagnated. If anything, this proves that cities, especially those who don’t have a rapid transit line or the need for one, should invest in local bus transit for the biggest bang for the buck.

        • Nathanael Nerode

          In places where the buses aren’t stuck in traffic, yes.

          When the buses are stuck in traffic, you need to build bus lanes or build rail lines. Politically, for some reason, rail lines are easier to build; perhaps partly because rail is more popular.

      • Adirondacker12800

        In a city without rapid population growth, mass transit is not going to get many new riders

        Except in metro New York. Record breaking every year for the past two or three decades. Gets back to Cap’n Transit’s virtutous cirle. Traffic is so awful that people ….get on the subway or the LIRR or…

      • Richard Mlynarik

        In a city without rapid population growth, mass transit is not going to get many new riders,

        Nonsense. Non-sense.

        In a city without meaningfully improving mass transportation, that’s certainly the case.

        “Large capital expenses” are not identical to “meaningful improvements”.

        And that’s the point.

        Abandon that principle and you’ve given away the house, because anybody can (and will, and does) special plead that some special project provides benefits that somehow can’t be captured in numbers.

        That way lies madness — the very madness that we see all around us, as is happens.

        • Alon Levy

          Let me clarify: in cities with a transit revival, transit use will increase, sometimes dramatically. The issue is that some places never had a transit revival because they never had a transit decline. The mode share of public transit in Hong Kong today is approximately the same as it was in 1970. The same is true in Singapore. Tokyo has had a slight mode share decline. The importance of rapid transit in those cities is that it’s allowed them to keep their transit mode shares, while those of American and even European cities plummeted in the middle of the 20th century.

          • Adirondacker12800

            Well yes. can you call it a revival if ridership doesn’t increase?

          • Richard Mlynarik


            In cities with high mode share, a legitimate project will attract a large number of new riders, even if it is a small percentage increase in regional ridership. I’m talking riders, not market mode split. A 0.01% increase in NYC beats 100% in Plattsburgh.

            (Besides which, cities with high ridership can readily increase mode share via good, focused, cost-effective transit projects. I could tiresomely name an example high mode share conurbation starting with “Z” and ending in “rich”.)

            Cost per new rider (amortised capital and operating) is an excellent single metric for comparative project benefit, across modes and geographies. Every alternative I’ve seen or considered results in worse outcomes and is even easier to rig.

          • Nathanael Nerode

            Obviously I agree that cost per new rider is a great metric. (Retained rider would make sense in times of decline.)

            In fact, this is usually gamed with bizarre models which give really questionable predictions of number of new riders. During the Bush administration, underestimating the number of new riders on rail projects and overestimating the number on bus projects appeared to be government policy.

            Predicting ridership is not an exact science and 50% errors (in either direction) are to be expected at the *best* of times, when you don’t have biased plans.

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