What started as a squeak in November has turned into a low roar. What is this low roar? The dying gasp of transit projects across the nation. In case you have not noticed, there is a bit of political turmoil going on here in America. It seems that no one is immune to the affects of the recent election. Regarding transportation, the problems started when NJ Governor cancelled the ARC project that would have increased commuter train access into NYC. Then, Wisconsin and Ohio’s new GOP Governors rejected Federal funding that was awarded to the previous administration for High Speed Rail. Florida’s Governor also recently turned down over $2 billion in federal dollars for a true HSR that would have connected Tampa and Orlando despite repeated assurances that the state would not be on the hook for ANY cost overruns. The Florida case truly defies logic in that private companies were assembling bids for constructing and operating, at their expense, the balance of said line. I also read a column out of Cincinnati last night, that their new GOP Governor is rumored to be deciding on cutting nearly $50 million in previously committed state funds to the streetcar project there which is set to break ground any day now; a project that it’s state DOT deems one of it’s potentially highest return on investment.
What do all of these cancellations have in common? They were cancelled by GOP lawmakers bent on balancing their state budgets which are in the red or forecasted to be in the near future. Any Democrat, Libertarian or Independent can get on board with that. However, when budget balancing becomes the priority, why are transit projects always the first to get the axe? In Cincinnati, there was a recent “finding” of nearly $800 million for the extension of I-74 across the east side hinterland of the metro area. Why isn’t this being axed? Wisconsin has billions still in the budget for freeway expansion. Why hasn’t that been cut? I even read a ridiculous claim out of Chicago where suburbanites are fighting amongst themselves about sidewalks in their neighborhood where one person went as far as to claim that the concrete lobby is advocating for this. Really?? Here at home, US31 is slated to become a freeway north of 465 in the very near future. I-69 is currently underway despite funding shortages. Neither of those have been put on the back burner for the state’s bottom line.
Furthermore,at the local level, our House of Representatives have passed the next state budget out of committee with an 18% cut in transit funding. An amendment has been authored to restore this funding but will not be resolved until Democrat representatives end their standoff and return to finish business for this session. This is another truly puzzling case particularly since House Ways & Means Chairman Jeff Espich (R-Uniondale) recently stated on WRTV-6 local news, that he regards transit funding as a local issue, “Local transportation is really a local responsibility.” I find that ironic since he has not given HB1372 a proper listening which would give local lawmakers the tools with which to solve said local transportation issues.
There is also some rhetoric being thrown about by conservatives that paints the recent explosion of public transit, bicycle and pedestrian improvements and “livability” legislative action as a UN ploy to socialize America. These are based on unfounded claims and really serve to enflame the issue beyond the economics and real person benefits that can be realized by simply offering an equal outlay of potential transportation choices. As the 2010 census results roll in, it has become obvious that cities and neighborhoods who have invested in these improvements are now enjoying the rewards of their hardwork.
Finally, when I look at the current climate, I see state controlled highway projects getting priority over all others and being placed close to the sacred cow as defense spending is. IE: it rarely gets cut when budget balancing occurs. For transit activists, this should serve as a red light when lawmakers suggest that the Federal government should be giving transportation tax dollars straight back to the states to spend as they see fit; an argument I stood up against in front of Congressman Todd Rokita (R-4th District) at the recent surface transportation hearing in Indianapolis.
For those of you who keep up with the topics described above on the national level, this is all old news. For you local readers, I hope that this has informed you a little bit about what is going on around the country.