Transportation Funding: Why It's Still Toll Roads Versus Public Transit

Is fighting sprawl still a goal for those who decide the fate of transportation funding at the federal, state and local levels?

Transportation planning is deeply connected to economic development, but there in any agreement about transportation funding among government leaders often ends.

Parag Khanna, a senior public policy analyst in Singapore and author of “Connectography: Mapping the Future of Global Civilization,” summarized the political divide over transportation planning like this: "America is increasingly divided not between red states and blue states, but between connected hubs and disconnected backwaters."

But division that stymies transportation planning goes further. Government leaders have always been divided in a third way, on what kind of transportation they want to develop. Two Maryland projects -- one a recently-completed toll road and the other a new light rail line -- illustrate that what transportation funding should be for is still an argument of toll roads versus public transit.

Two Tales of Transportation Death & Resurrection 

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan recently dedicated the Intercounty Connector (ICC), also known as Route 200, an 18.8-mile toll road, which runs outside the Beltway and was first envisioned back in the 1950s, to former Governor Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.. Ehrlich's predecessor, Gov. Parris N. Glendening, stopped the expensive road project, calling it “an environmental disaster” based on studies that concluded the road would significantly impact woodlands, streams and wildlife. But Ehrlich replaced Glendening in 2003 and revived the project.

At the same time, Ehrlich also tried to kill a 16-mile east-west public transit project, now known as the Purple Line, linking Montgomery and Prince George’s counties, according to recent coverage by Maryland Matters. Hogan also recently dedicated this public transit project. He was with Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao last month at groundbreaking, where she announced a Trump Administration pledge of $900 million in Federal aid for the project.

Hogan, ironically, expressed skepticism about the Purple Line project while campaigning, according to the story.

The Purple Line has seen an amazing number of twists and turns since it was first proposed in the 1980’s — endless debate at the federal, state and local levels, funding fights, lawsuits, expensive lobbying campaigns, political treachery and so much more. The drama has touched every prominent Maryland politician of the past three decades, with a changing cast of heroes and villains," wrote Maryland Matters author Josh Kurtz.

According to Kurtz, the Purple Line project carries potent symbolism and national as well as local political implications.

Fighting Sprawl with Public Transit

Glendening made the Purple Line rail project a priority in the late 1990s despite opposition. In 2003, after he left office, he became president of Smart Growth America's Smart Growth Leadership Institute. In a 2003 article about New Urbanism on the Smart Growth website that heralded his achievements, fighting sprawl became the new charge of several governors, from places like Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, South Carolina and Utah.

Glendening in his new role expressed a need for shift in government investments, chiefly toward transit-oriented development. "The government policies are generally anti-transit and pro sprawl...In terms of governmental policy, roads are generally free but transit is increasingly expensive. So in federal and local policy we [have to be] really committed to transit and a transit-oriented budget for transportation,” he said then, noting that about 80 percent of the budget is spent building roads and 20 percent for mass transit. Glendening prescribed an even split -- 50 percent in highway investment and 50 percent in mass transit.

What we need are two things: one is a change in land use so we won’t continue to go forward [in the same direction] and be in need of more transportation, and the second is a much better balance between transit and road building...The fact is that we need to greatly reduce road building in America, and transfer the majority of the money into building state–of-the-art train systems like in Europe. A rational well-used mass transit system is key to our strategy,” he said, noting that such a transition would take several decades.

Transitioning Federal Transportation Funding 

In 2009, former President Barrack Obama provided stimulus for high speed rail, envisioning a state-of-the-art train system that would rival highways. "Imagine whisking through towns at speeds over 100 miles an hour, walking only a few steps to public transportation, and ending up just blocks from your destination,” Obama told the nation. After two terms, Obama's plans for high speed rail went largely unfulfilled with several states concerned about how to pay for ongoing operations and unwilling to build.

However, the Obama-era FAST Act, though it emphasized highway and road development, made transit-oriented development projects like rapid rail, commuter rail, light rail, streetcars, bus rapid transit and ferries eligible for funding, too. The new transportation law also made it possible for the cities that received funding to design streets more friendly to bikes, pedestrians and transit users -- and differ from their state’s official road design standards.

There were also several U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) funded initiatives, like Safer Streets and Smart Cities Challenge, that came out of its thinking, summarized in its vision Beyond Traffic: 2045. The latter competition resulted in at least 78 cities thinking and developing a transportation vision for the future. Plans that might serve their future funding requests.

Transportation Funding Today: Show the Fed the Money?

Back in Maryland at the Purple Line groundbreaking, Secretary Chao said DOT would fund the project after the state and local governments, and the private sector, demonstrated their commitments.

The administration’s comprehensive infrastructure plan seeks this innovative approach,” she said.

What types of projects federal transportation funding will favor under the Trump Administration has yet to be decided, however.

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