TAKE MY STATE DOT, Please!
This is not a diatribe against State Highway, or, “Transportation” Departments. The objective of this commentary is to simply point out how the current system is primarily structured to build and maintain highways, at the expense of every other mode.
When you are a hammer, every solution looks like a nail. Make no bones about it. State DOT’s are in the business for building roads. That is their institutional raison d’etre. The federal Highway Act of 1916 mandated that states establish their own State Highway Departments (based on a recommendation to Congress by AASHO). They did so with a vengeance. All were and are armed with the right of eminent domain; a potent weapon that we all know can be wielded with devastating results on communities and property owners. States also established state gas taxes. A total of 30 states have provisions restricting these taxes to be spent only for highways. At the federal level, the national gas tax (until recently) could be counted on to supply well over $40 billion annually for highway construction to state DOT’s.
If localities want corridor improvements and look to transit solutions, they can expect little or no help from the state. They CAN expect help for justified transit capital projects from the federal government, but usually can count on only about 50% of funds needed. If localities look to the states for help (as in, highways or no way), federal highway monies will fund eligible improvements at 80% federal share with the state supplying the remainder. It is a modern miracle that many cities have taken the grueling, pot-holed path to transit improvements, eschewing the easier path of simply expanding their highways. I should add that not all states are so myopic as I describe.
Probably the most egregious example of a state DOT with only a highway vision to the exclusion of all else is the Georgia DOT. A product of the dysfunctional relationship between the Georgia legislature, the Governor and the countless (well, 159) counties that make up the state, GA DOT contributes nary a dime to mass transit for the cash cow of Georgia, Atlanta.
Do state DOT’s take a multimodal approach to corridor improvements? Most do not. Let me bring an example to the table, the Capital Beltway in Northern Virginia. We are in throes right now of adding HOT (High Occupancy Toll) lanes on said Beltway. The Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) negotiated a public-private partnership for building these lanes (which has also necessitated rebuilding the entire highway envelope) from the Springfield Interchange to just north of the Dulles Access Road, a distance of 14 miles. A deal was concluded with The Fluor-Transurban Consortium on very favorable terms for the Consortium to build the project (VDOT was desperate to build lanes- remember, that IS their business). The project will add an additional two lanes in each direction. These lanes will be dedicated to High Occupancy Vehicles (HOV’s) with three or more occupants, transit buses and…………single occupant autos. Oh, yes, HOV’s (car and van pools) and buses ride free while our one occupant auto pays a market rate toll to ply the HOT lanes (the reason they were nicknamed Lexus Lanes). Just one catch, however. If the number of car and van pools exceeds a certain percentage, 24% of total daily traffic volumes on the HOT lanes to be exact, then VDOT must pay a stiff bounty to Fluor-Transurban. Obviously, success pays. The state is also required to pay if the HOT lanes are at maximum capacity for more than 30 minutes in any day. Toll revenues would be retained by the Consortium for debt service and maintenance (and profit- the Consortium is not doing this for its health). The responsibility for maintenance of the HOT lanes ultimately belongs to VDOT, which will retain ownership of the new facility.
Did VDOT look at any alternatives to this scheme, like rail transit? Of course not. Since buses will use the HOT lanes (for free, no less), VDOT has done its part for transit (if it rolls on rubber, it is good to go). There are also plans, currently on hold for the segment inside the beltway, to bring HOT lanes to the I-95/395 corridor. Seeing the construction mayhem visited upon the beltway and surrounding environs and nervous about potential non-compete clauses restricting their ability to make highway improvements adjacent to a reconstructed corridor, Arlington and Alexandria recoiled from this plan and sued the federal government and VDOT to stop the project on the grounds of inadequate environmental assessments. While VDOT maintains that the Arlington and Alexandria law suits were the reason for eliminating the I-395 segment north of the beltway, others point out that difficulties in securing financing for the project may have been the deciding factor. Moreover, VDOT’s move eliminated the most expensive portion of this project.
Another example is I-596 in the Charleston, SC area, a beltway-light planned to end short of the Atlantic Ocean on both ends (the eastern segment is finished). When residents rose up against South Carolina DOT’s highway plan to plow the final section through wetlands and scenic coastal terrain, SC DOT’s response? It’s our plan or no plan. A more environmentally friendly alternative plan developed locally was given short shrift by SC DOT. One local newspaper quipped, “What are public hearings for, applause?” Remember, when you’re a hammer…….
Clearly, our institutional setup is no longer responsive to the trends and realities of the 21st century. While I’m not saying we should stop building and improving roads (I should mention that one Congressman from California believes that roads but not transit are mandated in The Constitution- those would be post roads, if my reading of The Constitution is correct), we desperately need to reassess the institutional framework at the federal level and make the adjustments that bring a true multimodal perspective to our state DOT’s and, dare I say, a level playing field between modes.
If you think that business (domestic and/or foreign) will invest in cities where the transportation network suffers from inadequate or misallocated resources, please reprocess that thought. Atlanta, GA (see above) is now suffering from some of the worst traffic congestion in the nation (validated by the Texas Transportation Institute’s flawed but still useful measure of traffic congestion), the result of almost exclusively highway-centric investments over the last thirty or so years [Author’s note- the MARTA rail system was built with local taxes- no state funds were involved]. One of GA DOT’s solutions: a 17 lane “improvement” to expand I-75 north of the city (I’m not making this up). A recent study concluded that many businesses considering relocation have steered clear of Atlanta because of the burgeoning traffic issues and inadequate investment in transit. Remember, when you’re a hammer……….
The new 112th Congress will be considering a new authorization of federal transportation programs. Yes, we know that this Congress has a new make-up that may be less favorable to funding transportation in general and transit in particular (we’ll save the conversation on bicycles for another day). The Republican Study Committee has released its report for bringing down the deficit and it focuses on cutting rail transit, intercity rail (AMTRAK) and other non-highway forms of transportation. The new House majority does not seem concerned that the era of cheap oil is ending nor that peak oil may have already been reached (for sure in this country and maybe the world as well). The current turmoil in the Middle East serves as a chilling reminder on just how dependent we are on increasingly fragile sources of foreign oil.
We also need to understand that drilling for domestic oil won’t solve the problem. Any domestic drilling started today likely won’t produce any oil for at least a decade and then it would only be a veritable drop in the bucket (or barrel). Remember, the amount of oil that leaked out each day into the Gulf last summer would only fuel our trucks, buses and automobiles for four whole minutes!!
We conservatives understand the compelling need to reduce the budget (and the budget deficit). We also understand the need to be competitive to attract economic development (as in growth and prosperity). That requires reforming our current funding mechanisms and spending more prudently to renew our crumbling transportation infrastructure (both transit and highways). So, let’s not throw the baby out with the bath water. Make the necessary reductions in federal spending but remember that maintaining and adding wisely to our nation’s transportation infrastructure will ensure that our future will be a more prosperous one. Then, America, you’ll like what you look like. I guarantee it!!
Glen Bottoms serves as Executive Director of The American Center for Public Transportation