This commentary was originally featured in Forbes on December 26, 2017.
In the wake of the deadly Amtrak train derailment that claimed three lives in Washington state, The Seattle Timesreported that state transportation officials were under a tight federal funding deadline which, if missed, would have resulted in millions of federal stimulus dollars going unclaimed. Absent the federal incentive, state transportation officials had targeted a 2019 opening for the new, faster rail corridor.
As the result of the project being “under a very aggressive schedule,” positive train control, an automated safety system, was not fully in place and tested. Positive train control was expected to be operational on the line by spring.
The doomed train went into a 30 mph turn at 50 mph over the speed limit. With positive train control, a computer would have sensed the danger and slowed the train.
Thus, according to press accounts, pressure to meet an artificial federal funding deadline started a chain reaction that may have led to the deaths of three commuters and millions of dollars of damages.
Federal transportation incentives play a little-seen role in influencing state and local transportation decisions nationwide.
For instance, federal highway fund rules mandate the use of construction materials that meet certain specifications. Failure to meet the specifications, even if not needed for a specific application, causes a project to be ineligible for federal funding while working to meet the specifications can drive up project cost while adding delays.
The Indiana Department of Transportation found a way around this challenge in 2009 when it developed a process to break projects into parts, allowing locally sourced materials and construction to be paid for with state and local funds, saving federal funding for portions of a project that could truly benefit from it.
The Federal Transit Administration’s New Starts program provides another example of federal policy driving local decisions. Created 26 years ago by Congress, New Starts aimed to award grants to local transit agencies “…based on a comprehensive review of (their) mobility improvements, environmental benefits, cost effectiveness …congestion relief, (and) economic development effects.”
The New Starts program works by encouraging urban transit systems to apply for competitive grants that, if won, pay for half of the capital startup costs. But, federal grant makers have a well-known bias towards funding rail projects—projects that encourage the aggressive use of eminent domain; make congestion worse by eating up existing roadways; and starve reliable and flexible bus systems that often service low income neighborhoods in favor of establishing passenger rail in high income areas. The net result is a degradation of urban mobility in the pursuit of “free” federal dollars.
This chase for federal money can be strong. For instance, three years ago in Texas, the City of Austin and Capital Metro, the local transit agency, spent $157,000 of taxpayer funds ($125,000 of that was federal money) to “educate” voters about an upcoming transportation bond that would have authorized $1 billion in debt in an effort to secure $700 million in federal funds under the New Starts program. These funds were to build 9.5 miles of track and could have increased local property taxes by $362 per year for the average home.
In spite of the lobbying with public funds, voters said “no” to the ballot initiative by a 57 percent to 43 percent margin, leaving Capital Metro with one rail line and just 32 miles of track.
The New Starts program and its promise of federal dollars still beckons, however, meaning that Capital Metro and Austin continue to thirst for an opportunity to grab some federal cash.
Project Connect is the latest iteration with the transit agency promising to “…work with local agencies, stakeholders and the public to identify high-capacity transit solutions…” It’s a foregone conclusion that those solutions will include a costly expansion of rail that, at best, will serve a tiny fraction of are commuters at a huge price tag.
Rather than tax Americans and borrow more money to dedicate to federal transportation priorities, Congress should consider allowing states to decide how best to address their unique transportation needs.