Transit and Rail Likely to Take a Hit in Budget Compromise

It’s tempting, following a political standoff like the one that took place last week in Washington, to tally up some rough approximation of “points scored,” and declare one party the winner. After the federal government narrowly avoided shutdown, observers were doing just that.

The Obama administration's call for renewed investment in the nation's infrastructure might become a casualty of budget compromises struck with House Republicans. Photo: Transport Politic

Was it Speaker John Boehner and conservatives in the House, securing dramatic spending cuts? Or was it Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and the Obama administration, preserving funding for Planned Parenthood and paring back conservatives’ ambitions while avoiding shutdown?

When it comes to transportation policy, it looks like the administration gave significant ground to Tea Party demands for spending cuts. The full details of the budget deal’s impact on transportation funding are still emerging, but early signs indicate that funding for intercity rail, transit, and urban development will be casualties.

Yonah Freemark at the Transport Politic examined the programs that bore the brunt of the cuts in the one-week budget extension brokered before the details of the final compromise get hammered out. Two areas will absorb almost all the $2 billion in cuts included in that extension — transportation and urban development, both of which had appeared to be major Obama administration priorities. Freemark elaborates on the implications for the final 2011 budget deal and upcoming negotiations over the 2012 budget and a long-term transportation bill:

Despite President Obama’s proposals for a huge increase in transportation funding in February, the hard-lining of Republicans and the weak response from Democrats is likely to mean a decline in spending whatever the need. Even as the President has called for a vast investment in the nation’s roads and railways, Republicans are convinced that the country must remain “within its means,” which in their opinion means keeping federal transportation investments within the bounds of revenues collected by the Highway Trust Fund.

Compared to the Obama Administration’s budget, the Ryan proposal would reduce transportation expenditures by a startling 55.6%, more than any other part of the budget. As I have described before, there is nothing particularly surprising about the Republican insistence on reducing spending on urban-focused programs: The Democratic Party has a virtual monopoly on urban congressional districts, so when it is not in power, those areas suffer.

If appropriate decisions were made about how to distribute those funds, that might be acceptable in the short term, as there are some transportation projects that are simply a waste of funds. Yet the conservative insistence on reducing government spending is not a long-term solution for funding mobility, as states and cities are cash-strapped and the private sector, whatever its merits, does not have the investment power to finance the nation’s transportation system (nor should it). Moreover, a reduction in overall transportation spending with Republican control over Congress seems likely to mean mostly a reduction in spending on things that you and I care about, like public transportation.

Elsewhere on the Network today: Biking in LA reports that two strange hit-and-run cycling fatalities have led local television news anchors to wonder if there might be a serial killer operating on the area’s streets, using a Ford F-150 as his weapon. Wash Cycle reports that a bill to broaden the definition of vehicular homicide has been advanced to the Maryland Senate, despite a setback last week. And Commute Orlando shares an infographic illustrating the share of energy lost to waste from various activities — the biggest waster being transportation, which is only 25 percent efficient.