It appears the federal government is on the verge of reducing funding for public transit and other means of "alternative" transportation. Such cutbacks could be bad news for California, where alternative transportation is mainstream and the state government is barely solvent.

Ever since the dawning of the tea age in 1991 (the year Congress passed the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act, or ISTEA), the feds have devoted a fair amount to transit infrastructure, bike lanes, sidewalks and other stuff that make it possible to move people and goods without cars and trucks. About 20% of federal transportation dollars has gone for this alternative transportation, and regional agencies have had broad discretion to spend federal money on their preferred transit projects.

The new Republican majority in the House of Representatives has little interest in light rail or bike lanes. According to DC Streetsblog writer Tanya Snyder, Jim Tymon, Republican staff director of the House Highways and Transit Subcommittee, recently told highway construction executives that Republicans want to return transportation spending to its 1950's priorities of interstate commerce and travel enabled by the National Highway System.

Two weeks after the election, Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota, a Tea Party darling, said that transportation should be exempt from the Tea Party's proposed ban on federal spending earmarks. What she specifically said was that earmarks for "building roads and bridges and interchanges" was acceptable. It was no accident that she didn't use subways or Safe Routes to School as an example of an appropriate earmark.

Bachmann recognizes that Republican voters, even Tea Partiers, are mostly residents of suburban, exurban and rural areas, and these voters expect to drive on wide highways no matter how deep the red ink.

At the same time Bachmann was making her pitch for highway projects, Rep. Jerry Lewis (R-Redlands) was demanding that the federal government take back $12 billion in unspent American Recovery and Reinvestment Act allocations, the biggest chunk of which is $2 billion for California's high-speed rail system. Does anyone seriously think Lewis would make that same demand if the $2 billion had been allocated for widening I-10 and I-15 in the Inland Empire?

Of course, Rep. John Mica (R-Florida), the incoming House Transportation Committee chairman, is a longtime transit proponent. Thus, it's difficult to see the federal transportation bill – already overdue for reauthorization – ignoring non-auto transport entirely. Plus, the Senate and White House remain in Democratic hands, and the administration's Transportation Secretary, Republican Ray LaHood, has emerged as a surprising champion of practically every option to automobile travel.

Still, with the highway trust fund running a $15-billion-a-year deficit, with Republicans expressing newfound concern over deficit spending, and with no elected official willing to promote tax increases, something must give. And that something is likely to be funding for projects other than highways and roads.

California could use new and improved highways and roads. But in California's urban regions – which is where our transportation policy is made – the focus is increasingly on modes other than private automobiles. California is an urban state and grows more so by the year. There's a recognition that we cannot build our way out of urban congestion with highways and roads, which is precisely what many land use planners have been saying for decades. Because of latent demand, every newly widened highway is almost instantly jammed. The state also is striving to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from automobiles.

Instead, California's current and future transportation investment strategy can be seen in Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa's 30/10 plan – which seeks to speed delivery of 12 major transit projects – and in the Bay Area Metropolitan Transportation Commission's most recent long-term plan, which devotes two-thirds of spending to transit operations and expansion, and about 5% to roadway expansion.

Is the federal government going to remain a willing partner in such transportation plans? That seems doubtful, at least during the short-term. At the same time, it seems equally unlikely that a shift in federal priorities will cause California's urban regions to embrace more pavement. For better or worse, California may be on its own for a while.

– Paul Shigley