Archive for June 11th, 2010

Deficit hawkism = gloomy outlook for public transit

June 11, 2010

An interesting item from the Light Rail Transit Association blog. The same seems to be true for Vancouver, but only with a twist. All levels of government seem to want to only fund (and partially at that) the most expensive forms of rail transit; subways and elevated metros instead of much cheaper at-grade/on-street light rail. The result: financial fiasco.

Deficit hawkism = gloomy outlook for public transit

For some time, I’ve been posting articles on the economic “stimulus vs. deficit” battle raging across the globe, and particularly in Washington. Now, unfortunately, it appears that the “deficit hawks” have basically won (see articles below).

So, why should public transport industry professionals and advocates care? This has some very bad implications for public transportation funding, the transit budget crisis, public transit services and ridership, and development of crucial improvements such as new rail starts.

With the 2008 Obama-Biden victory, I naively thought that, while this certainly wouldn’t mean the advent the revolutionary public transport Promised Land that I would like to see, it at least held out the possibility of something like a “New Deal 2” program pumping some real money for improvements into the public transport system while modestly (and temporarily) stimulating the U.S. economy.

That, basically, was not to be. Yes, there was a dribble of funds for public transport from a relatively puny (under-$800 billion) “stimulus” program, but most of the major capital funding was channelled into highway programs and other uses.

Then, I thought, there almost surely would be a “second wave” of more stimulus funding, and maybe public transportation would get more of that – and also, maybe crucial legislative-regulatory changes would be made to “level the playing field” between public transport and highway funding (and the funding of other modes).

Nope – that was not to be, either. Instead, in the face of the most profound economic crisis and downturn since the Great Depression of the 1930s, U.S. policy (and global policy, for that matter) has turned much more toward Ayn Rand, Milton Friedman, et al. and away from John Maynard Keynes, Paul Krugman, et al. – in other words, Herbert Hoover-style “Hooverville” policies have finally triumphed over FDR’s New Deal.

And, in federal transport policy, Wendell Cox and Randal O’Toole are continuing to trounce Reconnnecting America and the Congress for the New Urbanism (occasional anomalous exceptions notwithstanding).

The consequences for the public transport industry are almost surely dire. I qualify “dire” here because, at least in the USA, there’s an outside chance that Congress may manage to push forward an omnibus transportation bill with some modest dollops for public transit – but the chances are nevertheless slim. This would still make the outlook … not sanguine, but “lousy” instead of “dire”. And it would still be dire for quite a few transit agencies not lined up for the best table-droppings.

The implications for public transit agencies are almost certainly … gloomy. More belt-tightening, more scrambling to try to find scraps of revenue somewhere. (I’ll try to post more on this subsequently…)

Meanwhile, pro-motor vehicle transit adversaries can be counted on to escalate their campaign of agency-bashing, transit-bashing, and their favorite – rail-bashing.

My inclination is to say “hunker down” … but I’m a strong believer that “the best defense is a good offense” – only, I’m not clear on what a “good offense” would be in this case. If I figure that one out, I’ll let y’all know.