The Trump administration’s transportation priorities are becoming clearer and they are troubling. President Trump wants to build highways (and gut safety and environmental regulations) and seemingly plans to do so at the expense of public transit. His plan is a relic of the 1950s and is a step backwards in our efforts to build a transportation system that is cleaner, healthier, more accessible and equipped to build an economy for the 21st century. His plan means more cars on the road, more congestion, more crashes, and more pollution.
On April 4, President Trump spoke at a White House “town hall” meeting for business executives, reportedly telling the executives in reference to the upcoming infrastructure plan: “We have to build roads. We have to build highways.” He stressed that the plan will focus on funding for projects that are shovel ready and will eliminate regulations that supposedly slow down construction projects (which are actually designed to promote the safety and mitigate the negative environmental impacts of projects).
The language used by President Trump is not encouraging. He only talked about building highways. There was not one mention of transit projects. On top of this disappointing rhetoric, the Trump administration has proposed that congress immediately cut funding for transit construction projects for the rest of fiscal year 2017, and cut funding to discretionary grant programs that support ready-to-go transit projects across the country.
The current continuing budget resolution expires on Friday, and congress needs to pass budgetary legislation in order to avoid another government shutdown. The administration has proposed that congress eliminate the popular Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) grant program,which supports innovative projects, including multi-modal and multi-jurisdictional projects, which are difficult to fund through traditional federal programs. Eliminating the program would cut $499 million of desperately needed funding. The administration has also proposed cutting $447 million from the Transit New Starts program, the Federal Transit Administration’s primary grant program for funding major transit capital investments, including heavy rail, commuter rail, light rail, streetcars and bus rapid transit. These are programs that the administration proposed eliminating in the fiscal year 2018 “skinny budget” released in March, but now they are on the immediate chopping block.
Since 2009, the TIGER grant program has provided a combined $5.1 billion to 421 projects in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, Guam, the Virgin Islands, and tribal communities. For example, the city of Brownsville, Texas is receiving $10 million to rehabilitate a regional bus maintenance facility which will also serve as a new passenger transfer station, purchase eight hybrid transit replacement buses, and renovate bus stops to include sidewalks, curb ramps, and benches. The grant will also fund an innovative 2.4-mile long causeway which will be one of the longest dedicated pedestrian/bike bridge facilities of its kind in the United States and the first of its kind in Texas.
This project is part of a larger regional “Connecting Communities” effort to provide seamless regional and efficient connectivity through the metro areas around Brownsville. The bus system, which connects residents of the Rio Grande Valley, provides over 3 million passenger trips per year. The improvements made possible by the grant will help connect the region, reduce congestion, and reduce vehicle miles traveled. Overall, the project should have positive economic, health and lifestyle, and environmental impacts.
In 2012, about five hours north of Brownsville, the Houston area attempted to solve their regional connectivity problems through a different approach: highway expansion. It has not gone well. The region undertook a $2.8 billion project to widen the regularly congested Katy Freeway. The end product was a 26-lane highway, the widest in the world, on which travel times actually worsened considerably. By 2014, 85 percent of commutes along that highway took longer than they had in 2011. Morning commutes took more than 30 percent longer, and afternoon commutes took more than 50 percent longer. The region is no more connected than it was before, congestion has not been reduced, and the increased capacity of the highway brought more cars to road, doing nothing to help reduce total vehicle miles traveled or help the environment.
TIGER grants are essential because they support investment in smart transportation solutions, like in Brownsville, rather than the same old highway expansion projects that never seem to solve anything. Yet, despite the benefits we get from transit that we don’t get from highway expansions, our infrastructure spending is heavily skewed in favor of highways. According to the Congressional Budget Office, in 2014, 60% of public infrastructure dollars are spent on highways. Only around 20% is spent on mass transit. Historically, that ratio has been ever more skewed towards highways. Programs like TIGER were created to provide a unique opportunity to invest in rail and transit projects, because so much of the money allocated through the regular budget process goes to highways.
Likewise, the Transit New Starts program has allowed communities across the country to fund much needed transit investments. For example, with financing from the New Starts Program, the Tri-County Metropolitan Transportation District of Oregon (TriMet) was able to complete the construction of a double-track light rail transit (LRT) extension of the existing Yellow Line from the downtown Portland transit mall across the Willamette River, to southeast Portland, the city of Milwaukie, and urbanized areas of Clackamas County. The project represented a continuation of Portland’s many investments in a broad range of transportation options designed to produce a vibrant economy, improved public health, and enhanced quality of life for their residents.
The project included a new multimodal bridge across the Willamette River, expansion of an existing maintenance facility, bike and pedestrian improvements and the acquisition of 18 light rail vehicles. The project will link Downtown Portland with educational institutions, dense urban neighborhoods, and emerging growth areas in East Portland and Milwaukie. The project is expected to serve 22,800 weekday trips, providing faster and more reliable transportation times to downtown Portland for thousands who otherwise would have had to drive.
By taking vehicles off the road, the project also advances the goals of Portland’s Climate Action Plan, which aims to reduce carbon pollution from transportation by 78 percent by 2050 and daily passenger-miles of travel in vehicles by 64 percent by 2050. In contrast, the Portland area is also considering the widening of a section of Interstate 5 that runs along the Willamette River opposite downtown Portland, expected to cost a whopping $450 million (nearly $100 million dollars more than the LRT expansion). Unlike the LRT extension, the widening of I-5 would incentivize additional driving, which would run counter to Portland’s Climate Action Plan and longstanding policy to invest in transit options and grow a community less dependent on the car. On top of all of that, the widening is unlikely to even reduce congestion because, as the Houston area learned with the Katy Freeway, increased highway capacity typically brings more cars to the road, negating whatever positive effect the expansion was meant to have on congestion.
The Trump administration believes localities, not the federal government, should fund “localized” projects like those in Portland and Brownsville, ignoring the fact that grants under these programs are only awarded to projects that will have a significant national or regional impact. Without the supplementary funding available through TIGER grants and the New Starts program, localities are unlikely to have the ability to complete the same types of capital projects. These programs are some of the only ways that local communities can get sufficient funding directly. Without them, they are at the mercy of state DOTs and what they want to, or are able to, fund (which often ends up leading to projects like the I-5 or Katy Freeway expansions). First, state DOT money often comes from specific legislation (whether state or federal) that requires highway spending. Second, highway expansions are often popular proposals because they appear to have immediate value. Although we now know that highway expansions do not solve congestion problems, many state decision-makers have held onto the outdated idea that more and wider highways are the answer to our transportation woes (see the U.S. PIRG Education Fund Highway Boondoggle series of reports for a more in depth discussion of this issue: http://uspirg.org/sites/pirg/files/cpn/USN-041817-A3-REPORT/highway-boondoggles-3.html; http://www.uspirg.org/reports/usp/highway-boondoggles-2; http://www.uspirg.org/reports/usp/highway-boondoggles).Without discretionary funding programs like TIGER and New Starts, we are less likely to be able to meet our federal, regional, or local transportation goals.
Cutting these programs is a step in the wrong direction. The projects in Portland and Brownsville are just two examples of hundreds of similar projects throughout the country funded by these grant programs having positive economic, health and lifestyle, and environmental effects. In order to build a transportation system that meets our 21st Century needs,we should be doing everything we can to invest in smart transit solutions. Protecting TIGER and New Starts, which have been popular and successful, would be a good start.