Transportation Roundup: Obama Budget, DOT 2045, and Sad Transcontinental Railroad Nostalgia

The President’s FY 2016 Budget

On Monday, the White House released its DOA FY 2016 budget. Like President Obama’s previous budgets, this one has no chance of going anywhere, with the latest iteration primarily lending itself to lame congressional Republican “Groundhog Day” jokes. The White House is expected to release its updated DOA highway bill, a “GROW AMERICA Act 2.0,” sometime in the coming weeks. Until then, we won’t know in detail the policies the White House hopes to see on surface transportation.

However, we know it will take the form of a six-year, $478 billion reauthorization that will rely on a $238 billion bailout of the Highway Trust Fund to be funded by a tax on foreign corporate earnings. The White House plan would also make the TIGER grant program permanent, “dramatically” (their word) increase transit spending, and attempt to turn the Highway Trust Fund into a general transportation slush fund in order to boost politically correct spending on high-cost/low-value passenger rail projects.

But there appears to be some good in there too. To the president’s credit, he is a strong supporter of private infrastructure investment and plans to expand the role of Private Activity Bonds (PABs). As he mentioned in his State of the Union address, President Obama wants to create a Qualified Public Infrastructure Bond (QPIB) program to support more public-private partnerships in airports, transit, solid waste disposal, sewer and water, and other types of surface transportation that aren’t currently permitted under the existing PAB framework.

While not mentioned, we hope President Obama’s GROW AMERICA Act 2.0 also includes a provision that would end the current federal prohibition on states tolling their Interstate segments for reconstruction purposes. Last year’s GROW AMERICA Act included such a provision. This is something Congress should seriously consider as they scramble to come up with new irresponsible strategies for bailing out the ailing Highway Trust Fund. Instead of a federal highway handout, they should give the states a hand up by empowering them to fund and finance more of their own infrastructure.

U.S. Department of Transportation Predicts the Future

Also on Monday, the U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT) released its “Beyond Traffic” report that attempts to make predictions about the nation and its transportation networks through 2045. While there is little reason to take seriously a crystal ball’s view of 30 years in the future—particularly from a government agency and particularly from USDOT—there were a couple interesting nuggets I’d like to highlight.

First, USDOT admits that “after decades of public investments to improve and expand public transit services, ridership started to grow again. Over the past two decades, public transit ridership, led by increased rail transit system use, has grown by more than 20 percent, or approximately the same pace as metropolitan area population growth.” Usually, USDOT has been touting a false transit renaissance, while here they’re basically conceding that billions of driver subsidies have only resulted in flat-lining transit use. Remember: transit receives 25% of total government surface transportation funds yet has less than a 5% modal share.

Second, USDOT’s discussion of both vehicle automation and connected vehicle technology shows that it still lacks the imagination to consider the major potential social impacts. For automated vehicles, USDOT discusses on-demand ridesharing and last-mile transit services, noting that this may lead to lower auto ownership rates and “pull” toward car-free living in dense urban cores. However, it does not consider that automated vehicle “operators” may be willing to spend much more time in their vehicles (being productive or leisurely) and therefore live much further from urban cores on cheap rural land and commute much longer (or perhaps telecommunications improvements will result in fewer commuters). The potential “push” impacts of automated vehicles, along with the potential “pull” impacts, need to be studied together.

The Saddest, Funniest Transportation Story You’ll Read All Week

Finally, today’s New York Times ran an unintentionally hilarious op-ed by Kathleen Sharp. Titled “150 Years of Working on the Railroad,” Sharp meanders through an intertwining of her family history and the history of the construction of the First Transcontinental Railroad. To quote:

“Everything our family has has stemmed from the transcontinental railroad. The same could happen to future generations with the bullet train. Sure, there’ll be cost overruns, delays and unforeseen problems: There may even be a whiff of scandal. But what the transcontinental railroad was to its century, the bullet train can be to ours.”

Sharp admits that the construction of the First Transcontinental was plagued by corruption, mismanagement, inefficient routing, and cost-overruns—although she ignores the ghastly acts of cruelty experienced by many of the American Indians unfortunate enough to be in its path. However, her justification for building California’s high-speed boondoggle comes down to the fact that it will create jobs, just like the First Transcontinental.

Of course, the purpose of building the First Transcontinental Railroad was to reduce the travel time between the U.S. east and west coasts from six months to a week. The high-speed railway California is building will take a little less than three hours from San Francisco to Los Angeles. In contrast, driving takes six hours (and it’s door-to-door) and flying takes an hour. California’s high-speed rail line, if it is ever completed, will be a costly monument to mediocrity. If this is what modern Aspirational Big Government Public Works looks like, maybe we libertarians are actually winning.