Congressional Budget for Mass Transit Disappoints
From the radio newsmagazine
Between The Lines
Between the Lines Q&A
featuring progressive viewpoints
on national and international issues
under-reported in mainstream media
for release Jan. 27, 2009
Environmentalists and Urban Planners
Budget for Mass
Interview with Phineas
senior analyst with the U.S. Public Interest Research Group,
conducted by Melinda Tuhus
As part of the economic stimulus package President Barack Obama is calling on Congress to pass, the House Appropriations Committee -- as one of its first orders of business in early January -- approved a version that includes $30 billion for highways and just $10 billion for mass transit. Environmentalists, urban planners and civil engineers have called the $10 billion "a drop in the bucket" of what's required to wean America off its addiction to fossil fuels.
According to groups advocating a major investment in mass transit, the U.S. government has spent nine times more on highway projects than on public transportation. They argue that as transit ridership and gas prices trend upward, the time is right to shift the nation's priorities on transportation issues. Light rail and pollution free-bus systems are among a list of recommended transit project options.
Between The Lines' Melinda Tuhus spoke with Phineas Baxandall, senior analyst for tax and budget policy at the U.S. Pubic Interest Research Group. His organization researched the states' transportation "wish lists," and concluded the proposed budget doesn't bode well for developing a transportation policy for the 21st century. Baxandall explains how the proposed $30 billion could be better spent.
PHINEAS BAXANDALL: It could be either new capacity for building new super-highways and wider lanes, or it could be for repairing crumbling roads and bridges. From our point of view, we don’t need to be building new super-highways; we certainly shouldn’t be prioritizing it. We should be investing in projects that are going to decrease our dependence on oil, not increase our dependence on oil. Unfortunately, the stimulus bill – the economic recovery bill – does not have controls to make sure that the money will be spent on repairs as opposed to new capacity. It has some accountability measures which will stop fraud and abuse, but not to make sure the money is actually spent on the right kinds of things. We did a study -- we’ve been collecting the wish lists from various departments of transportation and what we found was really troubling: that most states, when you look at them, a majority of those states would give the majority of the money to new highway capacity -- to widening lanes and building new superhighways -- as opposed to doing the repair work we need. You’ve got some states, for instance, Wisconsin would spend over 86 percent of their road money -- according to their own wish list -- on new capacity. Vermont and Massachusetts would spend zero percent. They’ve got their priorities right, at least according to the lists they’ve put out.
BETWEEN THE LINES: And that money would go toward repairs?
PHINEAS BAXANDALL: Yeah, that money would go to repairs, to retrofitting, to preventive maintenance, projects of that sort. Which makes sense -- we shouldn’t have any more Minnesota bridge collapse-type disasters.
BETWEEN THE LINES: Like city streets that need to be fixed -- they wouldn’t be included in this plan?
PHINEAS BAXANDALL: Right, which is a real problem. There’s a list we put together as part of a national coalition we work with, called Transportation for America , where we put together a list of $1.2 billion worth of bicycle and pedestrian projects, which are extremely ready to go Often they don’t need any kind of pre-zoning or environmental studies. They’re some of the most shovel-ready projects there are -- $1.2 billion worth of projects listed there, but that didn’t get into the stimulus bill either .
BETWEEN THE LINES: So there’s no money for bike and pedestrian improvements?
PHINEAS BAXANDALL: The bike and ped stuff, as transportation departments decide to, they can use some of the highway money. They can flex in a way that they can be improving sidewalks and things like that, but there isn’t money that’s specifically for the bike and ped. So we really leave this up to the states, which, in some states it may be fine, but in most states it’s a real problem. We brought these lists to light, we were told by some states why there isn’t transit, like in Arizona , they said, “We don’t operate transit.” And it’s true, but it reinforces a bad situation where you have departments of transportation that consider themselves still highway departments. They see themselves only as about highways, so the things they ask for, the things they push in Congress are just highways. So they don’t think about transit; they’re not going to build it, or operate it or ask for it. Florida told us, bizarrely, they thought they were supposed to exclude public transportation from their list, which makes no sense.
BETWEEN THE LINES: Well, Phineas Baxandall, what kind of mass transit projects were proposed, and how much could be funded with the $10 billion the House is proposing?
PHINEAS BAXANDALL: The $10 billion is going to follow the peanut butter model -- they get spread thin to cover the whole bread, and that’s how they maximize votes, but it isn’t always the best policy. So there aren’t going to be a lot of big, bold projects for the future coming out of this. There’ll be a lot of vehicles that will end up getting repaired, signal modernization, kind of small bore projects that will probably improve service in some places. There’ll be some smaller projects that will get built as a result of this if they already had their engineering and environmental studies all ready. But the way the stimulus bill requires things to happen very quickly -- in 120 days -- unfortunately our federal funding system is such that it has a much slower process for public transportation, so if anything isn’t fairly ready, it’s not going to move. On the good side -- well, it’s not a good side -- but there’s been such a backlog of projects. The new starts program, which is the largest program for new projects, has what is at current levels of funding, a 50-year backlog of new transit projects. There’s a lot of projects there that are just waiting to get moving. There’s a lot of things that could get funded if there’s enough money there, but we fear it’s going to be spread so thin across different states that you’re not going to see a lot of dramatic new projects move.
One of the things that’s really missing in here that’s very disappointing is money for operations. When you think about new money for public transit, probably your listeners think about your local transit authority and how they might have had to cut back on bus lines despite the fact that there’s record levels of ridership going on, and that is something which will not be changed at all by this economic recovery money. There’s not a dime for transit operations, as opposed to capital projects.
BETWEEN THE LINES: What’s the status of the bill in the legislative process?
PHINEAS BAXANDALL: Well, it’s passed from the Appropriations Committee there (in the House), and Speaker (Nancy) Pelosi can still add some amendments to it before she puts it to a full vote of the House. So it still could be amended, still has to get a full vote of the House, still has to be reconciled with whatever the Senate’s going to come out with. It’s not a done deal -- if your listeners are unhappy with it, they should voice their concern.
Contact US PIRG in Boston at (617) 747-4370 or visit the group's website at www.uspirg.org.
Melinda Tuhus is producer of Between The Lines, which can be heard on more than 45 radio stations and in RealAudio and MP3 on our website at http://www.btlonline.org. This interview excerpt was featured on the award-winning, syndicated weekly radio newsmagazine, Between The Lines for the week ending Jan. 30, 2009. This Between The Lines Q&A was compiled by Melinda Tuhus and Anna Manzo.
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