Unlike much foolish federal spending, transportation has drawn a clamor from those wanting the U.S. government to pay for their pet projects for as long as we've had our republic.
From largely frustrated efforts to secure federal involvement in canal projects to successful efforts to secure rights of way for railroads in the 19th century and funding for highways in the 20th century, the role of the federal government in transportation systems has grown relentlessly. Many of the early Midwestern railroads were roads to nowhere, built on the fond expectations of real estate speculators that development would follow the rails rather than vice versa. However, the railroads effectively integrated vast expanses and provided the basis for effectively exploitingthis country'seconomic potential. Thedefining moment was the driving of the golden spike in Utah Territory in 1869,creating the First Transcontinental Railroad through the joining of different rail lines. Uncle Sam supported the project with vast grants of federal land.
In the middle of the 20th century, the Eisenhower administration presided over a vast expansion of the nation's highway system. This system cut by as much as half intercity travel times. But it also not only supported but accelerated the rapid suburbanization of our major metropolitan areas and transformation of urban cores.
In 1950, nearly 800,000 people lived in the District of Columbia, including singles and families of all strata; today there are perhaps 600,000, disproportionately made up of poor families and affluent singles. The automotive system that proved so economically integrative nationally also became a nonintegrative system within urban areas - one that promoted segregation of different classes and groups.
In New York City, the later highways built by public works czar Robert Moses in the 1950s, often disrupting neighborhood patterns, were themselves heavily subsidized forms or urban redevelopment. They helped promote suburban sprawl.
Oil companies, automakers and tire manufacturers are accused of a major and successful effort through government to replace many popularly used urban rail transit systems, or trolleys, with bus lines. The buses were to provide greater flexibility and less midlane blockage than the long-popular trolley lines, back in the day before there was concerted concern about air pollution or much dependence onimported oil.
Today,a number ofcities are opting to use government money to bring back the urban rail systems (surface trolleys as well as subway trains) that government money helped destroy in the first place. The District itself has surface railplans in the works. Portland, Ore., is one urban area that has remained tightly integrated around its urban core after blocking a major highway proposal years earlier, providing rail transit through its downtown area and what most libertarian-conservatives would regard as rather draconian restrictions onintensive housing construction outside a sharply defined urban development zone. Each intervention seems to feed on itelf. Government power and taxation helped supplant mass transit, growing government power helped protect what transit remained, and now we are growing government again to turn back the clock.
Just maintaining what roads and highways the government has built requires a growing government. The nation has developed a real problem with aging infrastructure - asshown bycollapsing bridges and exploding manholes -and recent economic recovery funding may have only scratched the surface.
Today, nearly two-thirds of the Transportation Department's fiscal 2010budget is marked for support of the Federal Highway Administration, to the tune of $42 billion. In fiscal 2009, that budget was pumped up by $27.5 billion under highway infrastructure and economic recovery legislation. Anyone entering the nation's capital by car will pass a number of bottlenecks created by crews at work on road widening and improvement under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009.
All that money attracts new mouths to the federal trough. Like traffic policemen directing the flow of funding, large standing interest groups peddle influence and engage our fondness for the ways and technologies of the past that are in decline rather than those of the future that are naturally rising.
An example is our stubborn insistence on trying to keep interstate and intercity railroads viable -with great subsidies - in an economy overtaken by trucks, buses and cars that ply the nation's multiple highways and roads to make direct delivery from Point A to Point B and whose delivery systems are moreover also deeply subsidized by the federal government.
Of the $11.1 billion bumped-up budget for the Federal Railroad Administration under recovery legislation in fiscal 2009, the $2.8 billion earmarked for passenger rail Amtrak represented nearly a doubling of the projected budget, which was fattened by another $8 billion in extra recovery funds for high-speed rail service. In 2010, the budget for Amtrak is thus far $1.5 billion, with another $1 billion for high-speed rail, out of total expected transportation expenditures of $73 billion.
We often subsidize at cross purposes, following contradictory rather than complementary policies, each of which can fully thrive only at the expense of the others. This is more important than the size of the above sums, which aresymptoms of a larger problem.
Trains are wonderful creations. But as long as we also underwrite and permit private-transport competition against these mass-transit vehicles, the latter are apt to come up second best. The rails represent collection and concentration rather than diversity and choice. The very spirit of the age seems to militate against them. Our subsidies of both rails and asphalt merely set up a competition for public fund- ing, leaving mixed results and the need for ever-more money next year.
Whatever we get or reject has large -ly rested on a competition of subsidies and earmarks rath- er than technologies since at least the end of World War II. All that government interference comes with unintended consequences, such as the social and economic isolation and devastation of South Bronx neighborhoods as a result of the Moses highway projects. Perhaps with less "planning" at the national level, and more responsibility, and user payment at the local level, there'd be more attention to those local results, which can seem awfully small when viewed from the bosom of government.
A recent PBS program cited one of the shorterMoses highways, which splits a South Bronx neighborhood but isn't heavily used. The locals would like to dismantle and replace it with green space. Yet the road remains year after year, decade after decade, and the U.S. and New York governments no doubt will continue to pave and repave and maintain it at great taxpayer expense. While Washington makes the decisions that will continue into the foreseeable future.
We need to be more open to cuts in programs and even public works that are no longer wanted or needed. But at the moment, every political instinct seems to favor continuing down the same old road.
At the local level, we begin to see user fees creep in where they are arguably least desirable, such as in the D.C. fire department, ambulance and emergency medical services,where a social contract of mutual insurance long prevailed.
Yet only in a few cases do we see user fees for highways and roads that directly benefit particular classes of commuters at the expense of all- and these are largely state toll roads, as in New Jersey and Pennsylvania. Then there are local roads in suburban Fairfax County, Va.,such as some of those near Washington Dulles International Airport, that also are tolled. Perhaps there should be more. People can commute from the outer fringes if they like, but perhaps those who sprawl should pay for the sprawling.
The problem with all the Washington spending on transportation isn't just the spending, though that is bad enough. The problem is that Washington simply cannot plan efforts of such size without missing important local consequences. And that's just a problem of today.
The remaining lesson of history is that each new effort to spend our way to transportation nirvana simply guarantees that we will need new layers of spending in the future to maintain what we have built and to make up for all the new problems caused by our poor planning. Spending and spending simply means that we need to spend even more. Perhaps it is time to stop.
Benjamin P. Tyree is a veteran Washington journalist and a media fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution.