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.