January 17, 2011

Transportation Funding

Transportation funding should not be isolated from everything else we want from government

Let's cut the sanctimony about transportation funding. Our government raises money from all sorts of sources - all eventually coming from our pockets - and then spends it on all sorts of things as well. Our politicians should not evade their role by leaning on artifices such as the "transportation trust fund".It is their difficult and important job to decide how much money to raise and what to spend it on.

Any dollar spent on transportation is one less dollar spent on education, public safety, health, social services, aid to the poor or any of countless other things government spends money on.
Transportation must compete with all these endeavors and not hide behind the idea of a "lock box" that forces the money to be spent only on transportation. There is nothing sacrosanct about transportation spending. And all of these uses need to be weighed against the idea of actually allowing people to keep some of their own money, and spend it on what they personally see fit. What a concept !!!

Sanctimony season is now upon us, with the state legislature going into session. Transportation spending is hence defined in broad lofty terms that make it sound inviolate, with words like such as "investment in our crumbling infrastructure". Or maybe not so lofty terms, like the headline for Michael Dresser's predictable column in the Sun of two days ago, "Using gas tax for budget threatens bigger potholes", as if pothole filling will inevitably be that part of the budget that will go unfilled if we decide to spend some of the money on somehow lesser budget items such as for school kids, police, firefighters, etc.

School kids vs. filling potholes, hmmmmm...

Of course, politicians make funding decisions all the time. We can tell their real priorities by looking at these funding decisions. The Baltimore City government decided that it is better to spend millions annually on running its own downtown bus system (even though we already pay the state MTA to run bus service) than to spend that money on a cleaner city, better education, fighting crime, keeping fire stations open, etc. That is our politicians' decision, which we need to make them defend at election time.

Politicians: Why are you spending millions of dollars a year on redundant bus service instead of keeping our fire stations open?

City officials have somehow been able to contort the issue to make it seem that because the city's Charm City Circulator is funded by the parking tax, it does not compete with other city needs. But being funded by the parking tax is just an accounting contrivance. Lots of other things are also funded by the parking tax. Parking tax money is just as green as any other money.

Allowing people to avoid the MTA versus keeping fire stations open, hmmmmm...

Michael Dresser asserts in his column that transportation "enjoys broader support than most state spending. After all, even conservative business leaders recognize a need to keep the veins and arteries of commerce flowing". If that is true, then transportation funding should be able to stand on its own merits instead of hiding behind protection afforded by a trust fund.

So yes, the multi-billion dollar InterCounty Connector (ICC) was a high priority of both Republican Governor Ehrlich and Democratic Governor O'Malley. But neither was ever forced to reveal why they would rather spend those billions on that highway then on other state needs. It's as if that money just came out of the sky. That in a nutshell is why our state budget is chronically out of whack.

But at least with regard to the ICC, their rhetoric had some correlation with their actions. On rail transit, O'Malley has constantly talked about the importance of building both the Red and Purple Lines, but he has quietly shelved both until after 2016 when he will be safely out of office and has effectively passed the buck. Obviously, he has decided that other things are much higher priorities, even if he avoids putting it in those terms. He should not try to hide his decision to kill his transit lines.

The ICC highway was "sold" by our current and former governor as being worth our multi-billion dollar investment. Maybe the sell job was more hype than substance, but it is up to all of us to discern the difference. The ICC is being built while transit plans sit unfunded. That speaks to the state's true priorities.

Meanwhile, transit advocates have been conducting a slick campaign to "sell" the Red Line, with big promises, including a website with pictures of shiny happy people and a "community compact." Obviously, it really hasn't worked for them - at least so far - although they've been working on it for about ten years.

The biggest image problem for transit is that people tend to love transit in the abstract, and then the closer we get to reality, the worse it looks to them. That is why the MTA has such a bad public image. Some of the same business and political leaders who strongly advocate for new transit like the Red Line avoid riding transit themselves. And looking at the MTA, who can blame them?

That is why the adopted transit strategy is to promote new transit rather than trying to fix what we already have. And that is why so-called "transit oriented development" is almost invariably dominated by massive parking structures. Somehow, even though we already have two rail transit lines that don't really work, they claim that the new Red Line will be the one that will work. It somehow won't be burdened by all the current woes. And the Red Line won't even connect to Baltimore's two existing rail transit lines.

Similarly, the city government was able to "sell" its Charm City Circulator bus system because it is separate from the bad old MTA that runs reputedly stinky buses on the same streets and stops at many of the same stops.

How long will the promoters of the city bus system be able to pull off this sell job? It may only work as long as people see the funding sources for all of these things in isolation. The city government does not have to pay for the MTA. It is run and paid for by the state, so the city can just promote and run its own competing system with no regard for the larger consequences to the transit system as a whole.

But everything affects everything else. By running and promoting its Charm City Circulator bus system, the city is preventing the larger MTA system from reaching out to these potential riders, and integrating itself into the mainstream. And meanwhile, the city closes fire stations, furloughs workers and tries to cut police pensions to pay its bills.

And the state builds more highways rather than transit lines. Transit operating deficits soar, while the state "budget crisis" continues. Acting as if the transportation trust fund somehow is or should be sacred only prevents resolving these issues.

Bottom line: Transportation needs to compete with every other government program for every dollar it spends. The best thing we can do is to try to come up with the best possible plans, programs and projects, so that the best possible case can be made that they are actually worth the money to fund them.


  1. You wrote:
    "By running and promoting its Charm City Circulator bus system, the city is preventing the larger MTA system from reaching out to these potential riders, and integrating itself into the mainstream."

    The Circulator has only been around a relatively short period of time. What was preventing the MTA from 'reaching out' to potential riders before? and what is preventing them now?

    I'm glad the Circulator is running. They do a better job on that limited route than the MTA does.

  2. Thanks for writing, Stuart. Those are important questions. I got thrown off a listserve for saying it was attributable to the MTA's "culture of incompetence". Maybe it's not very constructive to say that, but it's even less constructive for the city to barge in and steal this important market segment away from the MTA.

    And the MTA hasn't publicly done a darn thing to protest.

    Here from The Baltimore Brew is my proposal for how the MTA should serve short distance inner city trips as part of an integrated system plan:


  3. I am hoping that the circulator is the first step toward taking responsibility for transit in the Baltimore region out of state hands. One of the big differences between Baltimore's transit and DC's is that DC transit is administered by a regional organization, whose only concern is the Washington region. Our transit agency has the mission of creating multiple comprehensive transit systems and connecting those systems throughout Maryland (let's remember that MTA is the parent organization for all the local transit agencies in Maryland other than WMATA).

    Of course, MTA doesn't really have much input into Howard, MoCo, or Annapolis transit. Their main focus is on Baltimore, which in many ways makes them more dysfunctional. In our current scenario, a state run organization is charged with creating quality transit in the state's poorest jurisdiction but is beholden to politicians whose funding base is primarily in DC suburbs. Worse than that, Democratic state-wide office holders take Baltimore City votes for granted, and Republicans ignore them as a lost cause, so we don't even have people power on our side.

    The city needs to lead the charge toward creating Baltimore's own quasi-independent transit organization that is directly funded by Baltimore City and County and is thus at the mercy of those jurisdictions' voter bases.

    Of course, the city also needs to halve its property tax rate, continue overhauling its schools, and maintain funding for cultural institutions that help set it apart from the burbs. Still, I'm glad the city planted the seed of change that regional transit will need to function properly here.

  4. Jerry
    When you speak of integration, I know that you speak in urban design/transportation terms. But that word also carries with it perhaps the strongest disincentive to mass transit progress: racial integration. I think back to the MTA TV commercials that trumpeted Ehrlich's complete reconfiguration of bus routes. Who did we see? Smiling African faces on drivers and passengers. That's the undercurrent (not so subtle) of the lack of a Ruxton light rail stop among other battles. It's "their" public transportation, not "ours" (we drive cars.) Until that perception is overcome - by advertising and other methods, public transportation is relegated to those who have no other means of transportation, since the easy link is made between smiling African American stockbrokers and menacing gangs of thugs.

    Note that the Red Line does not pass through a majority caucasian census tract until it reaches Fells Point and Canton.