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Can't We All Just Not Get Along?

No less an authority than my brother called my last post on the transportation stimulus package “spectacularly uninformative.” Fortunately (or unfortunately), this shows I got my message across; I feel pretty uninformed about the transportation program and perhaps you do too.

One problem is that, paradoxically, a major strength of the way we make transportation policy can also be a major weakness.
Transportation certainly doesn’t lack its share of bitter political disputes. Propose a freeway extension through a politically connected residential area and be prepared to enter the Witness Protection Program. But these fights tend to play out at the local, metropolitan, and state levels.
On the national stage, the dialog about transportation is surprisingly civil, nonpartisan, and non-ideological. Republicans may be a bit keener on things like the privatization of transit service and toll roads. Democrats might be a little more conscious about environmental issues and securing funding for mass transit. But by and large, there is general agreement about the wisdom of a technocratic as opposed to a political approach. The narrow differences between the parties are illustrated by the fact that Norman Mineta, President Bush‘s transportation secretary, was the only Democrat in his cabinet. And Ray LaHood, our current secretary, is a Republican.
Crucially, there is nearly unanimous concord among elected officials of all ideological hues about the most lofty principle in transportation: grab as much bacon as you can for your home state and district. Transportation is one of the very best ways to bring home high-profile and lucrative projects.
Politicians across the spectrum love cutting the proverbial ribbons when new rail lines or freeway widenings they’re associated with come online. (Federal appropriations are tilted toward capital instead of operations spending partly for this reason.)
Republicans may be concerned about wasteful outlays, but the infamous Bridge to Nowhere (one of the very few cases where this kind of spending was exposed to scrutiny) was pushed through by Ted Stevens and Don Young, both Republicans. However, this is not to say that Democrats don’t play the game too.
To its credit, the administration labored to keep the stimulus package free from earmarks and used an existing formula to determine each state’s share of the highway money (more on this next time). But few voters will understand this, and doubtless it won’t stop pols of all stripes from seeking credit for popular projects.
Thanks in large part to the fact that incumbents of both parties benefit from this system, nobody is particularly keen to rock the boat. So meaningful issues get swept under the rug. These include the erosion of the transportation finance base; the underpricing of auto-related externalities like emissions, crashes, and congestion; and mass transit’s generally declining productivity, often-disappointing ridership, rising subsidies, and usually inefficient and inequitable fare policies.
And then there’s the question that really threatens to throw the gravy train off the tracks: is there much justification for large-scale federal transportation spending at all?
While it’s refreshing that there’s a policy realm that’s relatively free of partisan bickering, this can mean a shortage of critical scrutiny, a failure to air all sides of a topic, and a dearth of stimulating discussion featuring differing points of view. When it comes to transportation policy, a bit more gridlock on Capitol Hill might make for a bit less gridlock in our cities.