State and Local Officials: The Litmus Test for Federal Transportation Reform

There’s been a lot of speculation about the details and timing of President Obama’s recently announced plan to invest $50 billion in transportation since its Labor Day unveiling.  Last week, armed with a new report by the White House Council of Economic Advisers that showed the economic benefits of transportation spending, the President urged Congress to pass his proposal during the post-election “lame duck” Congressional session. Predicting the political appetite of Congress to take on the country’s transportation challenges is a guessing game at best, but one thing is certain —  decisions by state and local elected officials ultimately determine whether federal transportation policies become instruments of reform or tools to be abused.

Last week’s TIGER II grant awards to advance highway removal projects in New Haven and NYC are examples of how local officials can use federal policy to innovate. And there has been no shortage of innovative federal programs in recent years, from 2007’s Urban Partnership Program to 2010’s sustainability grant program.

But governors, mayors, and state legislatures decide how to spend federal transportation dollars. If they aren’t interested in federal incentives, transportation reform will not happen. The Urban Partnership Program would have awarded New York City over $350 million for adopting a traffic-busting congestion pricing program. The NY State Legislature rejected it in 2008.

State and local officials can also use federal tools to push a less progressive transportation agenda. Case in point:  New Jersey. The Access to the Region’s Core rail tunnel, 20 years in the making and widely supported by advocates, editorial boards, state and federal elected officials, and New Jersey residents, unraveled in 30 days as the result of NJ Governor Chris Christie’s unilateral decision to pull the state’s contribution to this federally funded transit project. While a personal appeal from USDOT Secretary Ray LaHood bought the ARC tunnel 14 more days of study, the fact of the matter is that the governor alone will determine ARC’s fate. Meanwhile, in the same month he proved willing to kill the largest transit project in the country, Governor Christie used the federal stimulus act’s Build America Bonds program to borrow $2 billion to widen the NJ Turnpike and Garden State Parkway.

Last month, The Transport Politic’s Yonah Freemark astutely noted that five gubernatorial candidates (in CA, FL, WI, OH and MA)  are running against high-speed rail, a signature transportation program of the Obama Administration.  What happens to the federal high speed rail program if anti-rail governors are elected?  What happens if other governors follow Christie’s lead and make unilateral decisions to cancel transit projects despite federal incentives to invest in a more balanced transportation network?  When it comes to transportation reform, local elections have real consequences.

(While all five of the anti-HSR candidates are Republican and the Obama administration is Democratic, transit investment need not be a partisan issue. LaHood is a former GOP Congressman. In our region, Connecticut Governor Jodi Rell, a Republican, has done more to invest in transit than any CT governor in years.)

Earlier this year, Tri-State Transportation Campaign released a report showcasing successful state reform efforts by advocates around the country. The report, State Transportation Reform: How Advocates Are Winning, argues that reform policies won at the federal level can only be realized if  advocates hold governors, state DOT commissioners and state legislators accountable for transportation spending decisions at the state level. President Obama’s recent push for Congress to act on new transportation investments is a welcome boost to advocates fighting for a transformative federal bill — but such a bill would only be one piece of state reform work.

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