The DOT’s $98 billion 2017 budget has a lot to recommend it, and virtually no chance of approval.
By Eric Jaffe, February 10, 2016
The Long Street Bridge in Columbus, Ohio.
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
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.