Is this any way to run a railroad?

Original Reporting | By Greg Marx |
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The Interstate Highway System: federally conceived and paid for.

November 9, 2010 — In the wake of last week’s Republican gains, one of the pressing questions for the next Congress is the direction of federal transportation policy. While President Obama has listed infrastructure as a potential area of compromise in an era of divided government, lawmakers have been unable to come to agreement for over a year on a new surface transportation bill — largely because of a widespread unwillingness to raise the federal gas tax, which has not budged since 1993, and an inability to agree on other revenue sources. Already, some advocates are worrying about the fate of transportation funding in a GOP-controlled House.

But while the revenue problem is a central obstacle to transportation policy, there are other fundamental challenges, too. Foremost among them is the fact that for all the calls from politicians for a new national transportation network — a 21st century version of the interstate highway system or the transcontinental railroad — we have not really come to a consensus on what goals this network is supposed to achieve.

This point was made clear recently amid the fallout from the ARC tunnel episode. When New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie killed the long-planned $8.7 billion commuter rail tunnel under the Hudson River, citing concerns about the impact of cost overruns on the strapped state budget, most of the ensuing discussion, from both supporters and opponents, focused on Christie’s decision. But the tunnel was noteworthy for another reason: it had received the largest-ever federal commitment to a public transit project. So, I asked a series of researchers, advocates, and policy wonks, was the $3 billion the federal government had dedicated to the tunnel the “right” amount? And how could we tell?

Most — at least, most of those who supported the project — said yes, noting that the tunnel had competed for federal funds against other transit proposals, that its benefits would accrue mostly to commuters from New Jersey, and that the distribution of costs (roughly a third each to the state, the federal government, and the bi-state Port Authority) seemed fair. But Yonah Freemark, a journalist and alternative transportation advocate who writes the blog The Transport Politic, answered differently. “I don’t know if we have developed a strong enough set of national objectives to define what the distribution of funds should be,” he said. “Is it in the national interest to advance a tunnel underneath the Hudson? We haven’t decided that. We haven’t come to a conclusion. We don’t even have a real national rail plan that [addresses] that question.”

In other words, we can’t draw reliable conclusions about how well a given investment will advance national transportation goals, because we haven’t set those goals. That, in turn, means we can’t, in any serious way, agree on what mechanisms and institutions and funding we’ll need to meet them. There has to be a better way to run a railroad. Doesn’t there?


“You can’t build systems with spot grants”

There are, it’s true, plenty of program-specific guidelines for federal transportation policy. The Federal Transit Administration’s New Starts initiative, which provided funding for the ARC tunnel, operates, like many other grant programs of recent vintage, according to well-defined criteria. (Earlier this year, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood announced new “livability” goals for the program, including economic development and environmental benefits, to augment Bush-era standards that focused on time savings.) Projects are weighed against competing applications, and the Department of Transportation publishes its evaluation of grant-winners online.

The value of the interstate system, Schenendorf said — both its real value, and its value as perceived by taxpayers — was rooted in the fact that “it’s a national network. It’s not a project here and project there.”

But these competitive, standards-oriented programs are islands afloat in a sea of policy indirection, contradiction, and path dependence. A considerable (and growing) sum is distributed through earmarks inserted by lawmakers for specific projects — many probably worthwhile, like a proposed freight rail tunnel that would link New Jersey and Brooklyn, others less so, like Alaska’s infamous “Bridge to Nowhere,” but all unconnected to any overarching objective.

The largest pot of federal transportation money, meanwhile, consists of highway grants distributed by formula to the states. This model, which arose out of the construction of the interstate system — the last serious effort to set a national vision for transportation infrastructure — perpetuates a broader policy environment that overwhelmingly favors road construction. (The federal government paid for 90 percent of the interstates, and still covers up to 80 percent of the cost of new highways. Most transit projects that win federal support, meanwhile, are funded at about 50 percent; total New Starts appropriations are less than $2 billion annually.) For people who want to shift the balance to other modes, one obvious approach is to lobby for additional funding for favored strategies. This is, in effect, what President Obama has done in making high-speed inter-city rail one of the signature proposals of his administration, and setting aside about $10 billion to date for selected corridors.

In the eyes of some observers, though, this approach is insufficient. “You can’t build systems with spot grants; a discretionary grant here, a grant there,” said Jack Schenendorf, a former Republican House aide and a member of a national panel that in 2008 proposed a series of reforms. (A case in point: high-speed rail delivers the most value when connecting cities with strong mass transit systems, but existing institutions do not always facilitate coordinated investment.) The value of the interstate system, Schenendorf said — both its real value, and its value as perceived by taxpayers — was rooted in the fact that “it’s a national network. It’s not a project here and project there.”

But that network, which is now at capacity and aging rapidly, was built by laying down ribbons of asphalt over greenfield. The next network, if it gets built, will have to be more technologically, administratively, and politically complex, integrating rails and roads and bike paths and sidewalks, as well as state, local, and federal governments. But our mechanisms for making decisions and implementing projects haven’t changed accordingly. The federal Department of Transportation remains divided into what is known in transportation jargon as “modal silos” — separate agencies for highway, rail, transit, and air, and still another for highway safety.

The situation in Congress is, if anything, even more balkanized. In the House, the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee is divided into subcommittees by mode: one for highways and transit, one for railroads, one for aviation, etc. But in the Senate, mass transit is in one committee, highways are in another, and highway safety and rail are in still a third. “What happens over time,” said James RePass, president of the National Corridors Initiative, “is that the chairmen of those subcommittees become very partial to their own mode. We don’t need supporters of different modes. We need supporters of systems that work.”

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