The Train, The Train! Federal Transportation Legislation: Be Careful What You Wish For

Hi all! Sorry I haven’t been writing much of late; I’ve been dealing with the minor matters of filing a dissertation and finding myself gainful employment. The first step is complete: I get to call myself a doctor now, though it is a source of considerable disappointment to my friends that after almost eight years of study I’m not the kind of doctor who can prescribe them medical marijuana. The second step is complete too: I’ll be joining the faculty at Clemson University in South Carolina as an assistant professor in the fall. I’m thrilled to be going to Clemson as I think very highly of the department, the setting, and winning college football.

Anyway, I’m going to try to get back in the habit of writing more regularly, this time about my dreams for transportation—which are turning out to be nightmares. Like one of those stories where a genie gives you three wishes and every one of them boomerangs. Or even better, a bad episode of Fantasy Island:

ME: Mr. Roarke, thank god you’re here! You’ve got to get me out of this!

MR. ROARK: But Eric Morris, your fantasy was for a more healthy political give-and-take about transportation policy in America, an end to wasteful transportation spending, and saving money and the environment with better fuel economy. Isn’t this everything you dreamed of?

ME: But all it’s gotten me is partisan gridlock and financial bankruptcy. Plus these fruity tropical drinks are giving me a headache. Please, Mr. Roarke, take me back to the days of gas guzzlers and pork barrel politics!

(Photo: Pranav Bhatt)

To explain: every few years, Congress has to pass a mammoth bill to authorize the federal share of US surface transportation funding, both for autos (roads, bridges) and mass transit. The stakes are very high, as these bills involve huge amounts of spending: the most recent, SAFETEA-LU, came in at $284 billion dollars. One authorization bill was passed in 1982, with others in 1987, 1991, and 1998. Since 2005, SAFETEA-LU has been governing the system.

And governing it… and governing it… because despite the fact that SAFETEA-LU expired in 2009, we’ve been unable to reach agreement on a successor. Congress has been passing emergency extensions of the old legislation—at last count, nine of them, with a tenth on the way—while digging in along partisan lines. The failure to enact a federal program, whatever its contents, is problematic, since given the size, scope, and long time horizon of many transportation projects, funding stability is important. 

Why gridlock now when things bumped along relatively smoothly in the past? As I have written about, transportation spending has traditionally been a beacon of bipartisan cooperation, at least compared to other aspects of federal governance. For example, Obama’s Secretary of Transportation, Ray LaHood, is a Republican, and George W. Bush’s, Norman Mineta, is a Democrat. In fact, I cursed us all by speculating that a bit more partisan discord might be helpful in producing more spirited debate about the important issues facing American transportation. Now we are suffering badly from an excess of spirit.

Why have things changed? Certainly, the general polarization in Washington, which seems to be reaching new heights, has a lot to do with it. The Democratic Senate and Republican House are in the process of producing much different versions of new transportation legislation.

And some other factors behind the malaise involve truly cruel irony. One is an end to, or at least muzzling of, politically-inspired greed. Hard to believe this could be a problem, but it is.

The number of earmarks—specific projects included in the legislation which are not evaluated for costs and benefits in the usual way, or funded according to an (arguably) impartial formula —had been inexorably rising over the decades. There were 10 in 1982, 152 in 1987, 538 in 1991, 1,850 in 1998, and 6,371 in 2005. This was troubling, since projects that get earmarked tend to be about bringing home bacon to congressmen’s home districts, not allocating the funding to where it is most needed or would bring the highest benefit. The “Bridge to Nowhere” in Alaska happened to be the earmark the media got ahold of, but there have been many other projects like it.

Pretty much everybody in transportation—including me—agreed this was a terrible trend. Remarkably, even the very congressmen who were stuffing the bills with pork eventually agreed. So in a remarkable show of bipartisan thinking, both sides have now agreed to turn their addiction over to their higher power and forswear earmarking. Unfortunately, this means they have also forsworn legislating.

It turns out that earmarks were crucial for fashioning the compromises needed to pass such a broad and far-reaching piece of legislation. Without their pet projects involved, congressmen have much less interest in passing a bill that involves some ideological flexibility. Hence paralysis. Question for you readers: is it worth tolerating some wasteful spending if it is an essential political lubricant that keeps the gears in Washington turning and prevents even larger problems?

And Mr. Roarke has reason to arch his eyebrows even higher in mock surprise as I beg for my fantasy to end. Like any right-thinking person on either side of the political divide, I have vehemently wished for better vehicle fuel economy. My fantasy has been delivered. Cool new technologies, which are both technologically and economically quite feasible, are bringing about terrific improvements in miles per gallon. Even the car makers have agreed to the Obama administration’s new standards, with new cars’ headline mpg (a complicated issue for another post) set to rise from 28 mpg in 2011 to 54.5 mpg in 2025. 

On balance, of course, this is a very good thing. But it will be the source of wrenching and perhaps paralyzing debate. Since transportation is mostly funded by gas taxes that are levied on a per-gallon basis, are rarely raised, and are not even indexed for inflation, the transportation finance system is—sorry—running out of gas. Already, general funds are being diverted to keep the Highway Trust Fund, where transportation revenues are sequestered, solvent. As fuel consumption—and thus gas tax revenues—plummets in the years ahead, a fundamental rethinking of how we pay for transportation will be necessary, and that rethinking must begin with the reauthorization debate: even not acting would be a choice. This couldn’t be coming at a worse time, as partisan gridlock has gripped Washington and new taxes are, at least on one side of the aisle, anathema.

And there is one final indignity. The has-been stars who dropped in on Fantasy Island at least got compensation that made it all worthwhile. Yet I have yet to be approached by a fabulous beauty whose fantasy is to fall in love with a transportation professor. Oh, well. More on these issues in the future; for now, be careful what you wish for.

Mike B

I never had a problem with transportation earmarks. Some could be considered waste, but any addition to the transportation network benefits us all and all parts of the country deserve to have reasonable roads and bridges. If things were carried out only on a cost-benefit basis we'd only have roads in the major metropolitan areas and then vast swaths of dirt tracks across much of the country. Just like the post office our transportation system has always had an implicit guarantee of cross subsidization in for the goal of universal service. The way congress is works with legislators covering specific geographic areas was the means by which this universal service was achieved through devices like earmarks.

Nobody needs to use something like a bridge to nowhere until suddenly they do and then they're glad it exists. Also, nowhere can't become somewhere unless you can get to it, so again even projects that seem useless today can be a godsend several decades down the road as our population and transportation needs continue to grow.

Re the gas tax, once road get bad enough you'll see populations cave in and agree to higher gas taxes, especially if they are spending less on fuel to begin with and if that money can be safeguarded to be only used for transportation and not the general fund. Businesses are already lobbying hard for gas tax increases in many states and what business wants, business tends to get.



Terrific mprovements in fuel economy? Where, exactly? I expect to be still driving my 2000 Honda Insight (71.4 mpg lifetime average) a decade from now, because nothing on the market even comes close to its fuel economy and fit to my lifestyle. (OK, the Tesla, but even if I was willing to pay the price, there's no way to fit two 70-lbs dogs in it.)

As for the wasteful spending as lubricant, did it actually work that way? Seems to me we have had a track record of either ineffective programs, or ineffective programs plus wasteful spending. I've no idea on how to motivate practical transportation spending, except perhaps to convince Warren Buffett that there's a profit potential.

Joe J

"Question for you readers: is it worth tolerating some wasteful spending if it is an essential political lubricant that keeps the gears in Washington turning and prevents even larger problems?"

The inherent problem with this question is how much is some and how do you stop needing more and more lubrication, when it already was growing exponentially. A little waste is expected, became quickly a lot of waste is expected.
It is the problem that bringing back $ to home is visible, but lowering the taking money from home (aka no earmarks) is relatively invisible.
Congress has no incentive to save money, but do have insentives to spend money as long as some is for their people.
The result is spending constantly increasing, becoming runaway spending.

As to the stagnation in gov't, what is the downside of it to politicians? We haven't had a budget in years, just extensions. The political cost of passing a "bad" budget is higher than the political cost of stagnation.


Patrick Minton

There's one big flaw in your argument:

The rise in fuel efficiency will NOT lead to lower (absolute) fuel consumption. Efficiency gains never curb overall consumption, in fact they encourage it. This has been true for every energy sector for over a hundred years.

I don't expect the rising fuel efficiency to hinder fuel consumption at all, at least not in the long run.


This is, of course, nearly complete nonsense when applied to the automobile. Despite all the whining about $4/gal gas, fuel costs are so cheap now (and have been since the end of WWII) that for the vast majority of the public, the constraint is the amount of time people are willing to devote to driving, not the cost of the fuel. Honestly, do you expect anyone to trade a 1 hour commute for a 2 hour one, simply because they've bought a car that gets 30 mpg instead of 20?

caleb b

"Clemson...winning college football."

Winning? I mean, kind of. I guess compared to UCLA.....

Eric M. Jones.

The approximate cost of constructing a twin track 10,000 km maglev train system including 300 kph trains, tunnels, bridges and stations, between major US cities is about what the Wall Street Bailout cost. Average construction cost would be about US$50 million per kilometer. About 1200 maglev cars would be needed. The rolling stock would cost only US$20 billion.

Such a thing would change the whole transportation dynamic of US society, making it possible to take a train coast to coast in a single day.

Nathaniel Q

I've always wanted a train from major cities that I could load my car onto. That way I'd have use of it when I got to where I was going, which is part of the reason why I don't take trains now.


Congrats on both successfully finishing your dissertation and finding a job!


"is it worth tolerating some wasteful spending if it is an essential political lubricant that keeps the gears in Washington turning and prevents even larger problems?


Preventing the gears in Washington from turning IS what prevents problems.


Simple solution really to the transportation legislation issue:

Eat the elephant.

Steve S

If you like winning in college football, you picked the wrong South Carolina school. Steve Spurrier's Gamecocks clearly have the upper hand.

Voice of Reason

I first want to start by saying that I'm not a tree hugger or environmentalist. However, I would like to see the country invest in an infrastructure that allows for more mass transportation. It seems that whenever the government tries to push it, they just go for a bus route. Despite how population the subway system is in New York, and the Metro is in DC, it seems that most of the country is deathly afraid of it, and we keep pushing our roads and highways on people. I'd like to see bullet trains connecting the country, and an intricate and efficient subway system in every major city for them to connect to. It will cost them, but the cost of not doing so will be even higher.

Joe J

People deathly afraid of it??
Pushing highways on people???

You haave that backwards. It's pretty much only the extreme minority tree huggers who think that. People in DC just know how inefficient the metro here is, and how it costs the tax payers money for every person who uses it. Yet even with it's expanding budget, the service is always under construction.

Voice of Reason

I don't really care about the environmental issue personally, as I mentioned. I just think that it's inefficient from a space standpoint to have massive amounts of cars moving to the same location operated by inefficient humans. I would just think that a rail system would be safer and and more efficient.