American progressive media is talking about the possibility of a Green New Deal, which involves spending money in a way that reduces greenhouse gas emissions. So far details are scant, and most likely no real plan is likely to emerge for a number of years, since the proposal is pushed by the Democratic base, which is no more supportive of cooperation with President Trump than I am. Because the plan is so early, people are opining about what should go in it. My purpose in this post is to explain what I think the main priorities should be, and to leave to others the politics of how to package them.
The primacy of transportation
The main sources of greenhouse gas emissions are transportation, electricity generation, and industry. In the US this is in descending order, transportation having just overtaken power generation; the reduction in coal burning and the collapse in solar power production costs are such that in the long term, electricity generation should be viewed as a solved problem in the long term. Lingering issues with storage and base load are real, but the speed of progress is such that ordinary taxes on carbon should be enough to fix whatever is left of the problem.
Transportation is the exact opposite. American transportation emissions fell in the 2007-8 oil price spike and ensuing economic crisis but are now increasing again. Newer cars have higher fuel efficiency, but Americans are buying bigger cars and driving more. Electric cars, the favored solution of people who think spending $50,000 on a new car is reasonable, are still a niche luxury market and have trouble scaling up. Scratch an American futurist who looks exclusively at electric cars and denigrates mass transit and you’ll wound a solipsist who looks for excuses to avoid the humiliation of having to support something where other countries lead and the US lags.
The upshot is that the primary (but not the only) focus of any green push has to be expansion of public transportation. This includes ancillary policies for urban redevelopment and livable streets, which have the dual effects of buttressing public transit and reducing residential emissions through higher-density living. Overall, this turns any such program into a large public works project.
Spend money right
It’s paramount to make sure to avoid wasting money. A large infrastructure program would run into an appreciable fraction of federal spending; money is always a constraint, even when the goal is to spend funds on economic stimulus. The first lesson here is to keep construction costs under control. But an equally fundamental lesson is to make sure to spend money on transit expansion and not other things:
Don’t spend money on roads
A large majority of American public spending on transportation is on roads. Adding in subsidies for cars makes the proportion go even higher. It reflects current travel patterns, but if the goal is to reduce the environmental footprint of driving, the government can’t keep pumping money into road infrastructure. Accept that in developed countries the generally useful roads have already been built, and future construction just induces people to suburbanize further and drive longer distances.
Congress spends transportation money in multi-year chunks. The most recent bill passed in 2015 for five years, totaling $300 billion, of which $50 billion went to public transit and $200 billion went to highways. Raiding the road fund should be the primary source of additional transit funding: most of the line workers and engineers can build either, and even the physical act of building a freeway is not too different from that of building a high-speed railway. In contrast, outside of a deep recession, increasing total spending on transportation infrastructure requires hiring more workers, leading to large increases in costs as the program runs up against the limit of the available construction labor in the country.
$60 billion a year on public transit is a decent chunk of money for a long-term program, especially with expected state matches. Over the next decade it would be $600 billion, and around a trillion with state and local matches, if they are forthcoming (which they may not be because of how political incentives are lined up). That is, it’d a decent chunk of money if the federal government understands the following rule:
Fund expansion, not maintenance or operations
The sole legitimate source of regular budgeting for public transit is regular spending at the relevant level of government, which is state or local in the United States. Outside infusions of money like federal spending are bad government, because they incentivize deferring maintenance when the federal government is stingy and then crying poverty when it is generous. Amtrak did just that in the 2000s: faced with pressure from the Bush administration to look profitable for future privatization, Amtrak fired David Gunn, who wouldn’t defer maintenance, and replaced him with the more pliable Joe Boardman; then in the economic crisis and the stimulus, it discovered a multi-billion dollar backlog of deferred maintenance, permitting it to ask for money without having to show any visible results.
If the federal government credibly commits to not funding state of good repair backlogs or normal replacement, and to penalizing agencies that defer maintenance and giving them less money for expansion, it can encourage better behavior. Unlike ongoing maintenance, capital expansion is not necessary for continued operations, and thus if funding dries up and a transit agency stops expanding, there will not be problems with service cancellation, slow zones, frequency-ridership spirals, and other issues familiar to New Yorkers in the 1970s or Washingtonians today.
One potential way to change things is to federally fund expansion without expecting much if any local match, provided the agency commits to spending the required operating funds on running the service in question. This separation of federal and local responsibility also reduces the political incentives to grandstand by rejecting federal money in order to make the president look bad.
Build the rail lines that are appropriate
Each region in the US should be getting transit expansion money in rough proportion to its population. However, the meaning of transit depends on the local and regional geography:
- In big cities it means rapid transit expansion: new lines for the New York City Subway, the Chicago L, etc. In somewhat smaller cities with light rail-based systems it means light rail expansion, which may also involve upgrading at-grade light rail to full rapid transit: Dallas is considering a downtown tunnel for its light rail network and Los Angeles is already building one, and those could lead to upgrading capacity elsewhere on the system to permit longer trains.
- In suburbs and some smaller cities with large mainline rail networks, it means commuter rail. It’s especially valuable in the Northeast and secondarily in the Midwest and the odd older Southern city: cities like Milwaukee and Cincinnati don’t really have compelling corridors for greenfield urban rail, but do have interesting S-Bahn corridors.
- In periurban and rural areas, it means longer-range regional rail, transitioning to intercity rail in lower-density areas. In some smaller metro areas, it means actual intercity rail to bigger cities. Examples include Colorado Springs and Fort Collins, both of which can be connected with Denver, and Hans-Joachim Zierke’s proposed regional rail line for Medford, Oregon.
I focus on rail and not buses for two simple reasons: rail has higher capital and lower operating costs, so it’s more relevant for a capital program, and rail gets higher ridership for reasons including better right-of-way quality and better ride quality.
Transmit knowledge of best practices
The federal government has the ability to assimilate best practices for both limiting construction costs and designing good transit networks. Local governments can learn the same, but for the most part they don’t care. Instead they run their transit systems in manage-the-decline mode, only occasionally hearing about something done in London, hardly the best-run European transit city.
The best practices for network design are especially important given the magnitude of the program. The US is not spending $60 billion nationwide a year on transit expansion. The NTD says annual spending on capital among the top 50 American transit agencies was $14.6 billion as of 2016 (source, PDF-p. 11), and a lot of that (e.g. most of the MTA’s $3.5 billion capital expenditure) is the black holes that are state of good repair and normal replacement. $60 billion a year apportioned by population is on the order of $2 billion for New York City annually, which is $20 billion over 10 years, and the city doesn’t necessarily know how to spend that money even at today’s construction costs, let alone rational construction costs.
At least New York has an internal bank of enthusiasts at the MTA and at shadow agencies like the RPA who have ideas for how to spend this money. Smaller cities for the most part don’t. Does Cleveland have any idea what it would do with $5 billion over ten years for regionwide transit expansion? Does Tampa? The federal government has to play an educational role in giving regions sample zoning codes for TOD, network design guidelines, and procurement guidelines that help reduce costs.
Start planning now
A large infrastructure bill planned for 2021 has to be planned now. Its proponents do not intend for it to be a regular jobs program based on existing local wishlists: they intend for it to represent a shift in national priorities, which means that each item of spending has to be planned in advance, mostly from scratch. It means the political work of aligning various interest groups toward the same goal has to start early, which seems to be what the proponents are doing; even the name Green New Deal evokes progressive nostalgia for olden days before neoliberalism.
But alongside the political work, there must be good technical work. Regional planning agencies have to be aware this may be coming and have to have solid ideas for how they’d like to spend a few billion dollars over the decade. Simultaneously, organs including federal offices like the GAO, transit agencies, shadow agencies, and thinktanks have to learn and transmit a culture of good operating and capital practices. A government that plays a bigger role in the economy or in society has to become more competent; managerial competence is required for any program that allocates money with any precision, and very good cost control is a must to make sure the available budget goes to a green transition and isn’t wasted on red tape.