With state and local government revenues shrinking throughout California, planners are increasingly looking to the federal government – and especially transportation funds – to pay for local planning efforts, especially if they involve infill and transit-oriented development efforts. But the two major possible sources of funding – the transportation reauthorization bill and the climate bill – are both stalled with little hope of passage anytime soon.
The climate bill has been caught, at least for the moment, in the crossfire of the immigration debate. So let's get back to that later and focus instead on the bill that ought to have no trouble passing: the transportation reauthorization bill.
The so-called T-bill has to be reauthorized every six years – and in all the cycles since 1991 (1997 and 2003), the bill has moved further and further away from its original focus on highways and other hard infrastructure. There are always huge debates over what it should fund – highways versus rail, capacity versus environmental enhancements – but there has never been any doubt that it will pass. Until now. The bill hasn't passed yet and doesn't seem likely to pass before the November election – if then.
The problem, simply put, is money. Between increasing fuel economy because of regulation and decreasing travel because of the recession, the federal gas tax doesn't generate enough money anymore. After decades in surplus, it's now in deficit, borrowing from the federal government's "general fund" on a regular basis to make ends meet. Since everybody loves transportation pork – Democrats and Republicans alike -- there's only one way out of this problem, which is to find what folks inside the Beltway euphemistically call an "enhanced revenue source."
But that means either raising the gas tax or squeezing money out of the climate bill's "cap-and-trade" provisions for transportation.
Nobody wants to increase the gas tax before the November election – least of all the Republicans, who are seeking to regain control of the House by running against tax-and-spend Democrats. So that leaves two scenarios.
The first one is for the lame-duck Democratic congress to pass the gas tax after the election. This may work politically for everybody – even the Republicans, who will then have plenty of transportation revenue to play around with but can wash their hands of responsibility for raising taxes.
The second is a long, slow decline of the federal transportation reauthorization system. It's possible that no federal transportation reauthorization bill will be passed in 2009, even after the election, or in 2010. So what happens? The previous authorization bill bumps along, getting temporarily extended by Congress indefinitely, and every year Congress faces the question of whether to fund it fully through a general fund subsidy or simply not appropriating all the money that's been authorized. This is not an uncommon scenario in federal programs, but it's a scenario that was unimaginable only a few years ago for the transportation bill.
The conventional wisdom in Washington is that the system is broken because the gas tax no longer provides sufficient revenue for everybody's appetite. This is true, but there may be a deeper problem here – which is that the 20-year-old "TEA" concept in federal transportation may have run its course.
Old-timers will remember that the passage of "ISTEA" in 1991 (the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act) was heralded as a revolution federal transportation policy – giving unprecedented powers to Metropolitan Planning Organizations, creating the environmental enhancement program, and providing unprecedented flexibility in spending federal dollars. The changes came about largely as a result of a revolution in the Bay Area, where the Metropolitan Transportation Commission demanded and got more flexibility to fund, say, bike paths over freeway expansions. (Bush signed the bill as a "jobs stimulus" during a recession, but never mind about that.) The TEA concept was carried forward in the 1997 and 2003 reauthorizations.
Yet the problem with the TEA concept is that it never contained a compelling alternative to the old pavement philosophy. As some commentators noted as far back as the mid-1990s, the TEA bills created a system that allowed MPOs to reject the highway-construction model and replace it with … a whole bunch of cool stuff that we really like. Which has never really added up to an alternative transportation system.
In the era of climate change, an alternative has begun to emerge – the idea that transportation should not be a separate idea but, rather, is one component of the goal of giving people proximity and access to things people need. In some cases, people will have to travel some distance to get what they need (a job, loaf of bread) and in most cases those folks will have to drive a car. But another option is simply to put people and stuff closer together, so that folks can walk, or ride a shuttle, or at least drive their car shorter distances to get from one thing to another.
That's why federal transportation funds are so frequently used these days for things like local land-use planning projects. (It's a system that, with full disclosure in mind, I benefit from in my day job as a planning consultant.) But it's also a way of looking at things that makes more sense from an integrated point of view.
Federal policies tend to be very functionally segregated, so it may never be possible to truly intertwine transportation with other aspects of community-building. But this kind of alternative vision could build support for a gas tax – showing that it is possible to improve access without adding lanes and increasing congestion all at the same time.
It's not clear at this point whether the climate bill will play a role in funding all this stuff. Since the burning of transportation fuels accounts for some 40% of greenhouse gas emissions, you'd think that reducing the need for transportation would be a goal in the climate bill. But transit advocates have consistently been outfoxed by deep-pockets folks like the coal industry (Insight CP&DR Vol. 24, No. 4 April 2008). And, in any event, the climate bill is – as it were – on ice right now because Sen. Lindsey Graham from South Carolina has broken with his northeastern counterparts over immigration law.
So even though the land use alternative ought to be compelling in both the transportation and climate change arenas, it's not likely to move either bill forward toward passage this year. Which means that, for the moment, we'll just keep muddling along.