DMI Blog

John Petro

Can Cities Wait 18 Months for Transportation Reform?

In addition to the flap with Governor Paterson, there is another democrat that doesn't see eye-to-eye with President Obama. In this case, Representative Jim Oberstar (D-MN) is resisting Obama's wishes to delay a new federal transportation bill until 2011. The Obama administration has indicated that it would rather see an 18-month extension of the current bill, rather than go through a contentious round of debate over federal transportation reform at such a politically sensitive time (i.e. health care reform).

That is too bad for cities and metro regions, which are clamoring for reform of the status quo. A new bill backed by Oberstar, the Chair of the House Transportation Committee, would funnel more federal dollars directly to metropolitan regions rather than through state governments, where money is often diverted to the less populated and less productive areas of the state (this was certainly true of the federal stimulus dollars). Additionally, the bill would streamline the processes that currently prevent new transit projects from being completed or even begun.

But Oberstar does not seem like he is willing to wait. Instead, he is proposing a three-month extension to the current bill.

It seems that if Oberstar has his way, cities and metros will have a lot more control of their federal transportation funds. In that case, what should our metros do with the money? According to conservative policy wonks, we should be identifying farmland on the fringes of our urban areas for future highways. To them, transit is a boondoggle and only takes money away from roads, which are inherently better. Wendall Cox even asserts that transit systems sap the productivity from our urban areas!

"One common claim is that transit will provide alternative mobility. However, transit trips tend to be twice as long as car trips and no transit vision has ever been put forward that would replicate the efficiency of the automobile."

But Cox then makes an even weirder claim: transit is an inefficient waste of time and money, except when it is not. Cox goes on to talk up the importance of transit in the country's most productive metropolitan regions: "None of this is to deny the inestimable value of transit in serving the nation's largest downtown areas (such as Manhattan, Brooklyn, Boston, Philadelphia, Chicago and San Francisco)."

So, apparently, transit has no value, except in the places where it has "inestimable value." And Cox is not alone in this estimation. His colleague Joel Kotkin thinks the same thing. Kotkin advises against building rail systems because they "will never get large ridership"; except for "successful existing systems" and in dense corridors in cities like Houston.

I agree. We shouldn't build transit systems where they won't be successful. But in cities that have made smart transit investments, new rail lines have been tremendously successful: Charlotte, Dallas, Houston, Salt Lake City, and Phoenix. There is no denying the positive impact that these lines investments have been making in these cities.

Cox bases his argument for more highway construction on hypothetical productivity gains. "Productivity improves as the number of jobs that can be reached by employees in a particular period of time (such as 30 minutes) increases." Cox assumes that the best way to increase the number of jobs within a 30 minute radius is to increase the distance that an individual can drive in 30 minutes. He dreams that "if free-flow traffic conditions could be established, considerable improvements in urban productivity would be achieved, because employees could get to more jobs in less time."

But no American city, after reaching a certain size, has been able to achieve free-flowing traffic. Even the sunbelt cities that invested heavily in expressways and highways have found that they simply can not add enough lanes to accommodate enough people. And even if a city could build enough highways, would there ever be enough room for businesses and people? Homes and job centers would need to be so far from one another as to push commute times well over 30 minutes.

Instead, cities should focus on density. By increasing density, we can also increase the number of jobs within 30 minutes. For example, a resident of Hoboken, NJ has four large Central Business Districts all within a 30 minute transit ride: Midtown Manhattan, Downtown Manhattan, Jersey City, and Newark. But in order to reach these kinds of densities, we need robust mass transit systems. Which is exactly why the cities that have made smart investments in transit--New York, Washington, Chicago, San Francisco, and Boston--are among the most productive in the world.

John Petro: Author Bio | Other Posts
Posted at 11:44 AM, Sep 23, 2009 in Transporation | Urban Affairs
Permalink | Email to Friend