On Wednesday, President Obama’s Transportation Secretary, Ray LaHood, announced the grant recipients of his department’s $600 million Transportation Investments Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER II) program.
Skeptics of the Obama-LaHood transportation agenda had known a week earlier that things were going to be bad, thanks to some members of Congress leaking project details to the press—but we didn’t think it would be this bad.
While much of the funding went to traditional pork projects like infrastructure repair in low-traffic rural counties, a significant portion went to Smart Growth “livability” projects. Sounds great—who doesn’t want their community to be more livable?
The problem is that, for Smart Growth advocates, “livability” doesn’t mean infrastructure investments that can increase Americans’ mobility and broaden their opportunities. They mean separating people from their cars.
Smart Growth “livability” projects generally make auto travel more difficult. These include converting highways to boulevards, closing city streets to cars, opening one-way urban streets to bidirectional traffic, narrowing roads, and installing speed bumps.
Congestion is by far the most serious issue facing our transportation system. Livability measures not only fail to address congestion, they make it worse. More congestion means that people spend more time stuck in traffic, which means a lot of wasted time and fuel. As vehicular mobility declines, so does real livability.
A debate between Smart Growth and traffic efficiency advocates has raged for decades in the transportation policy community. Since the early 1990s, federal transportation planning has been dominated by the Smart Growth set. They claim they just want to level the playing field for pedestrians, cyclists, and transit riders.
However, there is one major problem: Most Americans prefer to drive. In essence, Smart Growth advocates are attacking a problem that is greatly overstated—a lack of non-auto infrastructure and access—and making the far more serious congestion problem significantly worse.
Smart Growth proponents have much to be thankful for, as less than a third of TIGER II’s $600 million in grants went to road projects. In fact, more money went to livability-enhancing projects such as rail transit and bicycle trails than to roads. But grants were not evenly distributed. Five of the least cost effective projects received one-fifth of total funding.
Across the United States, Smart Growth advocates have been attempting to bring back city streetcars. The proposed streetcar lines in Atlanta and Salt Lake City received $73.6 million from TIGER II—12 percent of the disbursed grant money. One of the few silver linings in the recent spate of crippling state budget deficits is that many of these expensive and controversial transit projects were put on hold or drastically scaled back.
However, with the federal government providing targeted funds that must be spent, these boondoggles may be able to limp back into operation. In the case of Atlanta’s downtown streetcar line, the TIGER II grant accounts for two-thirds of the total investment.
In New Haven, Connecticut, $16 million went to a project to convert a portion of urban limited-access highway to a normal city street. Project backers claim that restoring this portion of Route 34 to the New Haven street grid will make for a more livable, pedestrian-friendly downtown.
Of course, it will increase congestion in an area already suffering from some of the worst driving conditions in the country. The State of Connecticut estimates that chronic congestion costs the New Haven area $117 million a year.
As wasteful as these projects are, the award for dumbest TIGER II grant goes to the Razorback Regional Greenway in northwest Arkansas. The others are at least somewhat related to Department of Transportation’s core mission of enhancing American mobility. The Razorback, in contrast, is a proposed 36-mile bicycle and pedestrian corridor stretching from Bentonville to Fayetteville.
According to the Census Bureau’s 2009 American Community Survey, only 0.3 percent of commuters bicycled to work in the Bentonville-Fayetteville metro area. Since when is the Transportation Department in the business of providing recreational opportunities to a small but vocal segment of the public?
TIGER II is likely just a taste of what will follow. With reauthorization of the multi-year highway bill around the corner, Americans should be wary of more anti-mobility transportation spending which Congressional Democrats and the Obama administration are very likely to support.