Should local transit just be built by the states?

One of my new favorite snarks, Lisa Schweitzer at Sustainable Cities and Transport, discusses whether local transit funding shouldn’t just “devolve” to the states.

Federal involvement in transit also has led to a heavy capital bias in transit investment, prompting local and regional agencies to build transit projects, again and again, that they can’t afford to run with any frequency. This leads to a wider geographic coverage for transit–which probably still isn’t wide enough to deal with spreading regions–and with lower frequencies than really make for high service quality. (And sprawl is bad, bad, bad, evil and terrible! The worst thing ever! There? Will that sentence keep some of you land-use people outta my grill for the purposes of this post? Can I talk about something else now? Thanks.)

Transit has been on the teeter-tottery edge of those issues and criticisms for a long time. Why can’t New York pay for its own subways? Or Los Angeles? Or anywhere? That’s why we have local taxes and general funds, right? If you want transit, don’t go holler at the feds. Make it happen if you want it. Perhaps there would be a greater chance of that self-helping if leaders know that the buck really began and stopped with them, and they might instead be much more careful to match investments to operations.

The US Congress is overly dominated by rural interests, and many of us for years have argued that this creates a hostile environment for transit funding in the first place, as many rural senators wonder: “what’s in it for my constituents?” and the ineffectual spreading of scarce resources around to systems that aren’t particularly viable or worth investing in. Porky McPorktown.

The key drawback to devolution? Locals might not have the stomach for a local gas tax to replace the federal one.

So if places like California, New York, Illinois, and Minnesota were running their own budgetary shop, they could keep the revenues they are currently sending to Portland and Memphis and Charlotte.

Here’s the glitch: these donor state are only fiscally better off with Federal gas tax elimination or erosion if those donor states prove capable of passing a gas tax on its residents equal to or better than the 18 cents a gallon [- whatever the Feds give away to other jurisdictions]. And I’m not seeing that happen, at least not in California. Maybe in Minnesota. Maybe in New York, or Massachusetts. Maybe.

One thought on “Should local transit just be built by the states?

  1. Without having read Schweitzer’s post (sorry), I want to point out that she’s proposing an effectively permanent solution to a temporary problem. The federal funding bias towards capital is currently the case based on political and cultural attitudes about the nature of the problem that requires federal assistance. But from the 70s through the 90s there was federal funding for operations. As soon as political and cultural attitudes see transit operations as a problem worthy of a federal solution, the situation could be reversed. Similarly, while the federal bias towards rural areas is a permanent feature of our governance structure, rural attitudes towards transit are certainly situational, and hopefully will change with more projects like Roaring Fork BRT.

    And unfortunately, most methods of devolving capital funding to local governments are a bit more permanent. Probably the least permanent would be a transportation funding bill that contains no transit funds, which would be effective for 2-8 years or so. The most permanent, and probably the only thing that would spurn local governments to come up with funding sources, would be a law prohibiting capital funding or dissolving the FTA. That would probably take decades to reverse.

    Now that I’ve spent all this time writing a rebuttal, I should probably read her post.

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