While both the new administration and many in Congress agree about the urgency for greater transportation infrastructure spending, the consensus breaks down over whether public transportation should be part of the expanded investment and how to pay for it. Unfortunately, two myths — that any federal role in transit is disconnected with the nation’s founding and that private investment can take up the slack — are inhibiting progress toward meeting the challenge. These myths must be dispelled immediately. I will try to begin doing so below.
Why devolution is disconnected from history
The federal role in public transportation investment is consistent with how the federal government has been involved in what was called “internal improvements” from the very beginning. “Although devolution may seem superficially appealing, it would conflict with the nation’s long and unbroken history of federal transportation investment, balkanize the nation’s transportation networks, cause a substantial drag on the economy, and bring about a host of other serious problems,” writes Jack Schenendorf, former chief of staff for the House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee and now of counsel with the Washington, D.C. law firm Covington and Burling LLP.
As Schenendorf and others point out, the very first Congress after the Constitution was ratified, and which comprised many who served in the Continental Congress, passed bills to fund construction of roads, lighthouses, and other transportation infrastructure — and George Washington signed them. That role was an unbroken line that included Lincoln, FDR, and Obama. Even the conservative lion Ronald Reagan proposed and signed the first dedicated federal gas tax for public transportation, in 1982.
It is also important to remember that most of the local ballot initiatives that have been passed by voters for the past two decades assume that there will be a federal program to help fund these voter-approved programs. In other words, the voters have assumed that all three levels of American government — federal, state, and local — will continue to be involved.
Private capital is no panacea
Another myth is that the private sector can fill the vacuum, because the feds have “gotten in the way.” Although private capital has played a role in transit investment since the beginning, through bond financing and, of course, as suppliers of goods and serves bought with tax dollars, it can probably be expanded through more public-private partnerships, but cannot fill the gap between current tax revenues and the funding needed. As Warren Buffett, whose firm owns several such suppliers, says, it never has. Even in other countries where such partnerships are much more common, most of the investment comes from taxes.
Elected officials must stop relying on these myths, because they are mostly cop-outs from their historic responsibilities. We must call them out, and when they put aside these fictions, we must give them the backing they need to do their jobs.