Funding local transportation locally

Whenever Tax Day approaches, I end up thinking about where that money goes, and what it buys, and whether I really wanted any of it.  Increasingly, it seems to me that the larger the governing jurisdiction, the less democratic it is, and the more despairing I am of having any influence over it.  More than any other realm of policy, the way we build our cities — and thus our buildings and our transportation systems — influences our energy use and other impacts on the world around us.  Land use is nominally controlled by local government (city planning boards, zoning commissions, etc).  However, in many important ways the actions that local governments can take are limited by the state and federal policymakers.  In particular, they’re limited by what they can get funded.  The large jurisdictions take your tax dollars, and then set up hoops for small jurisdictions to jump through in order to get it back.  This leads to an unfortunate homogeneity of policy, and discourages experimentation, or even imitation of things known to work in other places.  At best you end up playing accounting games, doing things like building bike paths with federal flood mitigation money.

30th St. onramp looking good by Zane Selvans on flickr

How exactly does this mitigate flooding again?

The perils of running all your transportation dollars through the automobile centric state and federal funding bottleneck were recently highlighted for Boulder County.  The Denver Regional Council of Governments (DRCOG) manages the metro area’s Transportation Improvement Program (TIP).  A TIP is a standardized listing of all the transportation projects receiving federal funding.  The DRCOG prioritizes the projects, with funding estimates, applies for funding from the Feds and the state and (supposedly) attempts to disburse the funds in a somewhat equitable way amongst all the participating communities, of which Boulder is one.

In February, the Mayor of Denver sent a letter (PDF) to DRCOG, asking them to re-prioritize their funding, taking $10M from a combination of bicycle, pedestrian and transit projects in Boulder County as well as regional air quality management in order to fund grade separation between the eastern branch of the commuter rail and a freeway on ramp at Peoria Street and Smith Road.  Except for the air quality money, all of the proposed cuts came from Boulder (City or County), and encompassed all of our 2nd round funding requests (the first round is apparently funded by score alone).

An Ocean of Automobiles by Zane Selvans on flickr

This is apparently what the Feds want your city to look like.

The Mayor’s letter is worded to emphasize his concern for the safety of pedestrians rushing to catch their trains and emergency vehicles accessing nearby hospitals or DIA (not to mention drivers waiting to get into rush-hour traffic on I-70) but comments to the Daily Camera from George Delaney, Denver’s manager of public works, suggest there’s also an underlying dismissal of bike, transit and pedestrian projects as somehow unrelated to real transportation.  Which apparently must involve motor vehicles:

Delaney said the grading work is among the city’s highest transportation priorities, and that it’s considered to be a “health, life and safety issue,” while Boulder’s projects seemed to focus more on bike paths and convenience.

“It’s a matter of priorities,” he said. “We’re saying, ‘Let us have the dollars now.’”

Delaney said Denver supports Boulder, especially in its efforts to secure funding for the U.S. 36 corridor, and that the city would help Boulder secure funding for any programs that are cut this year during the next round of federal awards.

“We’ll be there to support them 100 percent,” Delaney said. “Right now, we need the money.”

Or if I might paraphrase:

Our freeway project is Very Important, and your bikes and buses aren’t really transportation anyway.  But don’t worry, when you want money for your cars, we’ll be there for you!

Unfortunately, County Commissioner Will Toor and much of Go Boulder’s staff was in Washington DC during the meeting and the City and County were not well represented.  Our city council members were also apparently not given notice (unlike their counterparts in Aurora and Littleton).  After another round of bickering, the County transit projects were kept (including summer weekend bus service to Lyons… which just got community-wide bus passes as a pilot project), but the City bike and pedestrian improvements were lost.

It’s easy to look at this interaction as petty regional politics (which it probably is), but I think more than anything it points out how flawed our entire transportation funding system is.  It is absurd that a nationwide bureaucracy has any role in determining whether or not we build a bike and pedestrian path on the north side of Pearl between 30th and Foothills as part of the TVAP.  It would still be absurd even if it were just a Denver metropolitan bureaucracy.

West Foothills Path Progress by Zane Selvans on flickr

Somebody in DC had to sign off on this?  Seriously?

Human powered transportation is ultra-local.  It can and should be funded locally.  The problem is, there’s no way to get your money back from the feds unless you build the sprawl and freeways they mandate with their funds.  If you’d rather spend your money on deviant alternative transportation, you’re out of luck.  So by-and-large, we keep building what they want as a nation.  So much so that we’ve forgotten there are other options.  One cyclist I spoke to about the situation responded:

Oh, but we’re so spoiled here in Boulder with all our bike paths.  We should be thankful for what we’ve got.  At least the buses got funded!

I couldn’t find a summary document for the DRCOG TIP, but in the SF Bay Area, only 2% of all the money went to bike and pedestrian projects.  I doubt it’s any better here.  That’s not spoiled; that’s fighting over table scraps.  Portland’s entire network of bike infrastructure supposedly cost about $60M, which is roughly the cost of one mile of urban freeway and significantly less than we spent on the tomahawk missiles fired into Libya the other night.  Seattle is planning to spend several billion dollars digging a tunnel under its downtown for cars.  Just like Boston did.  Just like South Pasadena hopes to force LA to do with the 710 freeway.  Bike and pedestrian infrastructure is a spectacularly good value proposition.  If LA spent several billion dollars on bike infrastructure (and a very good marketing campaign), it would utterly transform the region.  Completing the 710 freeway certainly will not.

The Lauging Goat Patio by Zane Selvans on flickr

Wouldn’t you rather have a city that looked like this?

It’s hard to remember that sometimes, things have negative value.  A “free” car from your parents still needs gas, and insurance, and registration, and repairs, and parking tickets, and speeding tickets, and a chance of killing yourself in a wreck, and CO2 emissions, and road noise, and the exercise you didn’t get because you were driving.  Today, more car infrastructure has negative value.  We’ve spent trillions of dollars — maybe tens of trillions of dollars on cars.  On freeways, parking lots, oil wars, industry bailouts, the cars themselves, and the oil we did manage to get ahold of.  We’ve spent all that money, all that space, all that concrete and hydrocarbons, and we still have too much traffic, not enough oil, and 100 people killed by cars every day.

I hope it’s not necessary, but if building the transportation network we actually want means we have to turn down federal funds and raise the money locally, then so be it.

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