Wednesday, December 29, 2004

A Window into the Bush Administration's Transportation Policy

A recent op-ed published on planetizen by some of the architects of Bush's transportation policy is of interest as it provides a window into the administration's approach to urban and suburban development.

They begin their commentary by acknowledging the "fiscal dilemma" facing the federal government which assumes that:
Deficit reduction and spending discipline will be the Administration's and GOP congressional leaders' top priorities during the next session of Congress. Discretionary spending for non-security programs is expected to rise only about one percent next year.
Of course, "spending discipline" has not been the pattern of the administration thus far--given its anemic economic policy, its tax cuts for people in high income brackets and its (very expensive) foreign policy of military expansionism. A "fiscal dilemma" is undoubtedly the the rationale given by the administration for offering such a low figure in its SAFETEA legislation, but it is important to remember that the fiscal constraints were largely created by misguided policies in other areas of domestic & foreign policy and that transportation systems are being asked to bear the brunt of these failures.

In order to get beyond the "fiscal dilemma," the authors argue, states should be given more autonomy in allowing tolls to be levied on interstate highways. This money could then be mandated for use only for highway improvements and maintenance.

They see the future of transportation funding as shifting the burden from governmental sources to user fees.

While there is nothing intrinsically wrong with user fees, relying on them for financing the major infrastructural basis of our local and national economies is a very risky--and extremely inequitable--proposition.

Many state budgets are in crisis--partly due to federal policies that shift more spending burdens on states--making it likely that you would see states set up tolls to meet highway construction and maintenance costs.

As metropolitan areas have expanded utilizing low-density development and commuting times have risen, people of lower income will be more severely burdened by tolls if they have to travel long distances to work.

A more equitable way of meeting the "fiscal dilemma" might be generating congestion charges like they have done in London.

I will be exploring this policy in more depth in the coming weeks as Edinburgh votes on whether to establish the controversial charges in February.

For the uninitiated, a congestion charge is a toll that is levied against drivers when they drive into a certain area of a metropolis that is burdened by congestion. Unlike the toll scheme imagined by the Bush team, the revenues collected are put into more efficient transportation modes, like buses, rather than for highway expansion.

While the tax is regressive (currently it's £5), the money is utilized to build up a public system of transportation that is accessible to people regardless of income. Because of its expense, more people are inclined to take public transit, increased ridership offers more funds from the farebox and the added funds from the congestion charge provides the public transit agency more resources with which to improve the system.

(Linked to Outside the Beltway)