Transportation: Top Down or Bottom Up?

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America’s transportation system needs more centralized, top-down planning. At least, that’s what the Brookings Institution’s Robert Puentes advocates in a 2,350-word article in the May 23 Wall Street Journal.

If that seems like an unlikely message from America’s leading business daily, perhaps it is because Puentes couched it in terms such as “spending money wisely,” solving congestion, and “adhering to market forces.” But not-so-hidden behind these soothing phrases is Puentes real argument: “America needs to start directing traffic” by developing “a clear-cut vision for transportation.” Such a vision “must coordinate the efforts of the public and private sectors.”

“The big question,” Puentes says, “is how much it will all cost.” This is a diversion from the real big question, which is: who will do this coordination? In Puentes view, the answer is smart people in Washington DC who can best determine where to make “critical new investments on a merit basis” using such tools as an infrastructure bank.

One of the results of that system, Puentes makes clear, will be more spending on transit so that commuters have “more transportation choices.” He specifically mentions the ridiculous Subway-to-the-Sea being planned in Los Angeles. Never mind that, as the Antiplanner has previously noted, Puentes’ goal of extending transit to more jobs is both extremely expensive and will have little impact on actual transit ridership.

The real problem with America’s transportation system is not a lack of vision but too many people with visions trying to impose them on everyone else through lengthy and expensive planning processes. A bridge or road that once might have taken five years to plan and build now takes twenty or more, if it ever gets built at all, thanks to all these visions. (Of course, when it comes to expensive rail transit projects, Puentes thinks Congress should waive environmental impact statements and other expensive planning processes.)

The real solution is not more top-down planning but a bottom-up system that responds to actual user needs rather than to inside-the-beltway visions. That means funding transportation out of user fees and not out of infrastructure banks, which–no matter how “merit-based” in intent–will alway end up being politically driven.

In a bottom-up system, individual transit and highway agencies (or better yet transit and highway companies) would be funded by their users, so they would have incentives to provide and expand service where needed by those users. Such a system would be far more likely to relieve congestion, save energy, and meet Puentes’ other goals.

Thanks to our heavily planned and heavily subsidized transit industry, the average urban transit bus uses 80 percent more energy per passenger mile than Amtrak. But that’s not because Amtrak is energy-efficient: the average Amtrak train uses 60 percent more energy per passenger mile than intercity buses. Unlike both Amtrak and urban transit buses, private intercity buses aim to meet market demand, not political demand, so they tend to fill about two-thirds of their seats while Amtrak fills only half and transit buses less than a quarter.

Achieving a bottom-up transportation system means getting the federal government out of transportation decision-making. One way would be to have states take over federal gas taxes as proposed by New Jersey Representative Scott Garrett.

To the extent that the federal government distributes any transportation funds to states at all, they should be distributed using formulas, not grants, because formulas are much harder to politically manipulate. Ideally, the formulas should give heavy weight to the user fees collected by each state to reinforce, rather than distract from, the bottom-up process.

Puentes’ top-down vision will waste hundreds of billions of dollars on little-needed transportation projects while it does little to relieve congestion, save energy, or reduce auto emissions. A bottom-up process will save taxpayers money and increase mobility, which should be the real goals of any transportation policy.

See here for more on downsizing the Department of Transportation.