CityFixer

A Bold Transportation Plan for Urban America—Dead on Arrival

The DOT’s $98 billion 2017 budget has a lot to recommend it, and virtually no chance of approval.

Image U.S. DOT
The Long Street Bridge in Columbus, Ohio. (U.S. DOT)

The U.S. Department of Transportation’s newly released fiscal 2017 budget is about 70 pages long, but you need only look at the cover to catch its drift. The lead image shows the pedestrian-friendly, tree-lined Long Street Bridge in Columbus, Ohio, which reunited two neighborhoods separated in the 1960s by an interstate—a fate shared by so many urban districts. Lest the point get lost, the $98 billion budget makes clear that future transport policies must “reconnect” communities, where past ones “divided” them.

The 2017 DOT budget may get laughed out of a Republican-controlled Congress in this election year, but it nevertheless outlines a bold national transportation policy with American cities at its center. Unlike the recently passed FAST act, which stayed true to historical spending habits that favor highway expansion and worsen congestion, the new budget does more than nod at real change. In that sense it’s truer to the DOT’s 30-year “Beyond Traffic” vision that hopes to pivot away from car-first planning toward more mobility choices.

Some of the raw numbers: Public transit funding would nearly double under this budget, from $11.8 billion in fiscal 2016 to just short of $20 billion. TIGER grants that jumpstart so many metro area projects would rise from $500 million to $1.25 billion. Specific capital projects that gain mention for funding starts include L.A.’s westside subway extension ($125 million), Honolulu’s driverless train corridor ($244 million), and Albuquerque’s gold-standard BRT project ($69 million). High-speed rail gets back on the federal wish list at $7 billion.

Among the plan’s boldest elements is its empowerment of metropolitan planning organizations. MPOs currently craft the long-term plans for urban regions but lack the direct funding might of state DOTs, which often remain locked in a road-building mindset left over from the interstate era. The new budget calls for MPOs to receive billions in direct funding to make their own decisions—a reasonable charge given that traffic and transport-related climate impacts tend to emerge at a regional level as powerfully as the local one.

Driverless transport technology gets more than a wink, with a chief expected result being safer city travel. The White House already revealed its $4 billion plan for autonomous vehicle development and large-scale testing, and the budget makes clear that this investment has “better, faster, cleaner urban and corridor transportation networks” in mind. Positive train control, the intercity train advance that would greatly reduce human errors like the one that caused the wreck of Amtrak’s Train 188, also gets nearly $200 million.

The plan is especially explicit when it comes to “Clean Transportation Plan Investments,” which together amount to some $320 billion over 10 years. One sharp component would reward states that cut greenhouse gas emissions—frowning on road expansions that increase vehicle miles traveled, similar to the new policy being developed in California. A clean communities program would help cities and towns do things like expand bike and pedestrian networks and reconnect “downtowns divided by freeways,” like Columbus.

The clean elements of the budget plan would be funded by the $10-a-barrel oil tax that the White House unveiled last week. It’s not a gas tax, per se, since it targets producers rather than consumers, but it might as well be, since companies may pass on the fee to drivers—potentially adding 24 cents a gallon to gas prices. That seems like a big bump only in the context of U.S. fuel costs that rank among the world’s lowest, and while middle-class families might feel the hit, they would also gain something in cleaner air, safer travel, and less-congested roads.

Still, the barrel tax was pronounced “dead on arrival,” and the 2017 DOT budget as a whole received a similar greeting from Speaker Paul Ryan, who called it “a progressive manual for growing the federal government at the expense of hard-working Americans,” according to The New York Times. Some divides still await their great bridge.

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