Over the past year, we have witnessed a spate of thoughtful studies that unequivocally demonstrate that America’s infrastructure is aging, crumbling and in dire need of renewal. All the measures used to determine the condition of our infrastructure in these studies dramatically document this state of affairs.
Unfortunately, many of our nation’s governors didn’t get the message. Rather than focusing on maintaining and upgrading what we have, many governors have gone on sprees to construct new highways. In Virginia, where the state cannot maintain what it’s got, the state has offered Charlottesville $400 million for an ill-conceived bypass. The state has even contrived to revive the “Western Bypass”, a multi-billion dollar project killed countless times in northern Virginia.
While the state DOT is essentially broke, it didn’t stop them from pouring $400 million (that seems to be their level of investment in new highway projects) into the Capital Beltway HOT lanes. Recently, the head of VDOT, Sean Connaughton, essentially told the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority to “Drop dead” when they had the audacity to ask the state to increase its miniscule contribution to the critical Dulles Metro extension. While we too have problems with the labor provisions for the Dulles project (see our “A Suggested Tea Party Agenda” for our suggestions for reform), I think the state of Virginia is hiding behind this issue to justify not upping the ante for Dulles.
The Virginia transportation largesse evidently does not extend to transit, which heaven forbid, they view as “subsidized.” Yes, Virginia, highways are subsidized too, but facts don’t seem to get in the way of the governors of Virginia, Wisconsin, Ohio or Florida. Whereas the Governors of Florida, Ohio and Wisconsin have taken an in your face rejection posture on high (and higher) speed rail, the governor of Virginia has spoken soothing words while proceeding at caterpillar speed to upgrade intercity passenger rail in Virginia, rejecting federal assistance as having too many strings attached (of course, not so with federal highway money). A new service recently started from Lynchburg to Washington, DC (an initiative started by the previous governor) has proven so popular, it is even making a profit. Shouldn’t this experience spur greater efforts to improve and expand intercity passenger rail in Virginia? Yes, there are plans to improve passenger rail to the Tidewater region but implementation on that plan is barreling ahead at, well, glacial speed. And what about plans to extend the northeast corridor service to Richmond, through Virginia, connecting with North Carolina’s efforts and eventually on to Atlanta? Yes, that is being thought about, carefully, deliberately, and ever so slowly by the McDonnell administration. Anyone who has to experience I-95 between Washington and Richmond knows that alternatives are needed. Not another lane or two but real, long term alternatives like fast, convenient passenger rail. A ninety minute trip from Northern Virginia to Richmond on I-95 can take ninety minutes or four hours, or three hours, or, well, you take your pick. God forbid that an accident might occur. Then all bets are off.
We conservatives don’t like raising taxes but we prefer that to increasing debt. You can’t build (or maintain) something with nothing. Virginia has not raised the state gas tax since 1986. Do we wonder why our transportation tax dollars don’t go as far? Look at what you were making in 1986 and think about meeting expenses with the same amount today.
However, the main culprit is the institutional framework at the state and federal level, which is set up primarily to fund highways (let’s also not forget the way we fund elections in this country). Virginia is no exception. But transportation isn’t the only area where current reality intrudes on programs set up to deal with situations that existed twenty, thirty, forty, fifty years ago. Think defense and entitlements (Medicare and Social Security). The constituencies that have grown up around these programs over the years like the status quo and are fighting tenaciously to maintain their place at the trough. Times change, conditions change, people change but our institutional framework is resisting change at all costs. The responsiveness of our political leadership will determine if we can muster the will to break the power of the status quo. If not, expect a whole lot more potholes, grossly inadequate public transportation, much higher gas prices and precious few transportation choices. A grim future? Indeed, unless we make the necessary changes to align our future direction with reality. Good transportation and our way of life really do depend on it.
Glen Bottoms serves as Executive Director of The American Conservative Center for Public Transportation
I had the good fortune to recently spend two weeks in L’viv, Ukraine with a side trip to Krakow, Poland (and cooled my heels for almost four hours to cross the border). I met wonderful people (especially in L’viv where I spent the majority of my time). Although I had sporadic internet access, the relative isolation from the political discussions in Washington was frankly a welcome balm to my psyche.
This is literally the best of times and maybe, the worst of times, depending on which side of the border you reside. Ukraine and Poland look quite different today than twenty or so years when they emerged from the dark days of communism. The Poland I observed looked, well, genuinely prosperous. The change began at the border. Roads were well-maintained, infrastructure had been rebuilt and the villages on the road to Krakow bustled with activity. Krakow, Poland (population- 750,000, second largest in Poland) was a gleaming city, with a comprehensive transit system blanketing the region with fast, frequent service employing a variety of modes. The tram system, the backbone of the public transportation network, has been completely rebuilt and extended with new and used trams from the West placed into service.
A Polish-built Konstal 105N tram provides fast service on a busy arterial near the Old City in Krakow, Poland (July, 2011)
A new Fast Tram service (KST) was inaugurated in 2008 which provides direct access to the town’s main train station through a tunnel originally started in 1974. I saw interconnected public transit that gave access to all corners of the city, fares that encouraged ridership, while generally providing the glue that makes cities economically viable, attractive to live in and certainly to visit. Membership in the European Union certainly has provided advantages and Poland has played those advantages magnificently.
In sharp contrast, L’viv, Ukraine (population- also about 750,000) still reflects the chronic lack of money dating from Soviet times needed to maintain and improve the city’s infrastructure. The good news is that change is coming (slowly) and the city is working to upgrade the public transportation system (as well other services and infrastructure) in anticipation of jointly hosting the Euro Soccer Tournament with neighboring Poland in the summer, 2012. Like Krakow, the backbone of L’viv’s transit system is the tram (at least in the center city and environs- outlying areas with blocks of Soviet-era apartment buildings are served by a large, sprawling network of trolleybuses and buses).
An aging Czech-built Tatra T-4 bogie tram, vintage 1977, trundles through an older part of L’viv on a wet day in July 2010 (this section currently closed for a complete rebuild of the street infrastructure, including new track)
The meter gauge system provides intensive service with a mixture of old and second-hand Tatra-built trams. Fares are also cheap (about 12¢ a ride). New rolling stock may be years away although Koncar of Croatia recently reached agreement with a Ukrainian bus manufacturer LAZ (located in L’viv) to build low floor trams. L’viv would certainly provide a ready local market. If Ukraine’s current drive to join the European Union remains on course, perhaps a Poland-like future is in the offing. Ukraine’s geographic location is not its greatest asset, however, and it will need to proceed cautiously to avoid unnecessarily arousing its sometimes fulsome eastern neighbor.
There was one thing that I noticed about both cities. Getting around town is easy. Squads of minibuses (locally called Marschrulkys charging a premium fare of 25¢) prowl the side streets of L’viv, ably augmenting the trams and the trolleybuses. Krakow maintains a high level of service on all modes throughout the day. I also noticed new diesel articulated buses carrying crush loads at most times of the day in both cities. While car ownership is exploding in both Poland and Ukraine, city officials in Krakow and L’viv clearly recognize that in the competition for public road space, public transportation must prevail. Now there’s a refreshing point of view that we could take to heart (and to town) here in America.
Glen Bottoms serves as Executive Director of the American Conservative Center for Public Transportation
A U. S. Senator recently said monies set aside from the Highway Trust Fund for cyclists and pedestrians are funding “hitchhikers,” those unwanted fellow travelers sucking up resources that could best be applied to, well, highways. Those “hitchhikers,” or provisions for cyclists, walkers and other poor souls who opt to employ their feet to get to work, shopping, and recreation are, in this Senator’s mind, siphoning off critical funds that could be building more highways, more lanes, more interchanges and so on. In this Senator’s mind, only traveling by automobile (or truck) qualifies as true “transportation” in this country.
Sidewalks and bike paths are also infrastructure. Most conservatives recognize that infrastructure is in the federal interest. This is not a conservative versus liberal issue (or shouldn’t be); it is a vital national issue that national leaders have always embraced to insure the continued economic growth and prosperity in this country. Since Congressional action funding lighthouses and authorizing construction of the National (“Cumberland”) Road in 1806 (and federal infrastructure spending confirmed as constitutional by a Supreme Court decision in 1824), the federal government has been in the business of supporting transportation infrastructure. Need I point out the massive federal investments in interstate highways, airports (and air traffic control systems) across the country or investments in transit systems, ports and railroads over the years?
As we burrow further into the 21st century, it is becoming obvious to most observers that mobility in this country means developing a wide range of alternatives to accommodate all the trips we make each day. This means we cannot afford to treat bicycle riders or pedestrians as unwanted “hitchhikers.” Cities such as Denver and Boulder, CO; Portland and Eugene, OR; Washington, DC; and now New York City, to name just a few, have growing systems of bike only lanes and facilities to accommodate (and, yes, encourage) travel by bicycle. Greater attention is being paid to the pedestrian (and pedestrian safety) in many cities. There is a growing realization that wide, multi-lane arterials make crossing those streets a hazardous, sometimes life-threatening act. While current legislation describes provisions for cyclists, pedestrians and the like as “enhancements,” we need to adopt a name that signifies a broader focus that includes non-motorized travel as an important component of our transportation network. Action by the US DOT in March of last year to put these “enhancements” on equal footing with highways is a good first start (with predictable pushback from state DOT’s). Walking and biking can reduce our dependence on foreign oil and improve our health to boot!
The current national debate on reducing the federal deficit and returning our country to fiscal good health requires shared sacrifice. On that I think most of us can agree. Sparking a food fight by pitting various transportation groups against each other will be counterproductive. The funds available for transportation improvements in this country are going to shrink. In fact, that is already happening. It is therefore imperative that we arrive at a formula that shares the pain but preserves each transportation alternative a place at the table. Some deserving projects are not going to be built. However, attempting to exclude certain options to insure a greater share for one particular participant will only magnify the inequities that still permeate too many of our transportation policies. The future health of our transportation infrastructure is too critical to allow parochial interests to overwhelm a balanced approach to infrastructure renewal in a time of austerity.
Glen Bottoms serves as Executive Director of The American Conservative Center for Public Transportation