Tuesday, April 03, 2012

Pros and Cons of moving transportation to the state level

The western front of the United States Capitol...The western front of the United States Capitol. The Capitol serves as the seat of government for the United States Congress, the legislative branch of the U.S. federal government. It is located in Washington, D.C., on top of Capitol Hill at the east end of the National Mall. The building is marked by its central dome above a rotunda and two wings. It is an exemplar of the Neoclassical architecture style. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)When the Republican controlled House of Representatives came out with their budget proposal a few months ago many called it a doomsday budget. Among the items in the budget that had transit advocates scared was the elimination of dedicated transit spending.

So far no permanent transportation budget has been passed and considering it has been years since a plan has been passed through into law and the current state of affairs in Washington I see little happening between now and when our next president whether it is President Obama reelected or the Republican candidate is elected. 

Once the election happens we might be able to see what the future of transportation policy might be in the United States or on the other hand if we continue to have two widely different political influences in Congress, we may continue on this not so lovely state of political impasse. 

For second let me play devil's advocate with my libertarian side and say what if we not only ended dedicated transit funding on the state level, but instead completely eliminated transportation oversight by the Federal government. What would happen? 

Most people looking at this either see doomsday or happy days depending on your political perspective, however like anything there is good points and bad and let me point some of them out. This is by no means a comprehensive paper on the opportunities and unintended consequences but instead a few brief talking points designed to facilitate a discussion of the future of Transportation in America. 

Pros: 

Yes boys and girls, there would be some positive that would come out of this. The most important is that there would potentially be more money available to be used on projects (although see cons also for the funding issue part). Because an entire layer of bureaucracy that costs millions of dollars to operate would be eliminated more money could be used to fund transit projects that the states want. 

In addition unnecessary regulations could be eliminated that would also lower costs on projects. One example that has become punching bag in certain circles is the Buy American Act that raises cost of procuring equipment. While I am a supporter of American made products and want to see our local industries do well, that is an economic issue that should be dealt with separately from transportation. I am sure almost everyone could point out some  needless regulation that has been implemented on the Federal level that increase the cost to build vitally important projects. 

Third, ideally the state government would look to what are the priorities for the state and fund them by that priority list. Instead of having to worry that the Federal level would not consider their project important over something else, they could dedicated their funding to that project. 

Cons: 

If there is pros, then there has to be cons and once again let me point out I am just picking out a couple of important talking points here. You could write a book on the subject which is not the intention here. 

The biggest con is the counterpoint to number three of the pro's and that's the priorities of the state government. The question, how many state legislatures are in tuned with the needs of the people in the biggest cities in that state? I think you would be hard pressed to find a state where their priorities seemed in tuned with the needs of the cities. 

Then you add the totally wacked out state legislatures like Utah. For years anti-transit forces have been lobbying to get the Utah Transit Authority put under the control of UDOT which is strictly a highway organization. The primary goal here is to take away the voter approved funding from UTA and give it to strictly high spending. So far they have not been successful. However, if the state legislature of Utah had control of transit funding considering most members are either hostile or oblivious to transit such as my former legislator Carol Spackman who is one of the latter members. 

To see what could happen lets take a look at one law that went through the Utah Legislature this year. The city of Salt Lake City passed a no-idling ordinance to reduce pollution especially during times of inversion. The legislature decided it didn't like that so their might hand decided to change the law. 

Another con would be funding itself. With the elimination of the Federal Gasoline Tax and funding mechanisms  the responsibility for funding ALL transportation in the state would fall on the state. How hard would it be for state legislatures especially in states like Washington that has a anti-tax political machine to ramp up initiatives to shoot down any tax the state tries to levy? While the Federal government has been inept at raising the gas tax most states have not been doing anything either for fear of voter reprisals. What money was allocated would quickly be absorbed into the highways with nothing left for the alternatives. 

Finally it would also mean that the states would have to take a more active role when it comes to safety measures when it comes to transportation. This could actually make costs worse as every state enacts different regulations requiring bidders to change the specifications for every state. When it comes to transit, most orders are small enough that it could have a major detrimental effect on industry. 

Conclusion: 

There is no easy answers of this is probably only the tip of the iceberg of the pros and cons to this issue. Sadly, I see little being accomplished in Washington DC over the next few months and maybe longer depending on the outcome of this years elections. 

What is clear is we need to have an effective dialogue on the future of transportation in our country. Whether it will happen is anyone's guess. 
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