Jun 22, 2020

Quick Reads: Mixed News for Urban Transportation in the Surface Transportation Bill

Emily Hamilton Senior Research Fellow

Last week, following a long markup session, the House Surface Transportation Bill passed on a party-line voice vote. The current version has little chance of being adopted by the Senate, but both chambers will have to develop a compromise in order to reauthorize surface transportation spending. The bill includes major increases in transit spending relative to highway spending. But beyond the headline numbers, the marked-up bill includes amendments that would both help and harm urban transportation.

One of these amendments includes language similar to the Build More Housing Near Transit Act, which Representative Scott Peters (D-CA) introduced last year. This language would require the Federal Transit Administration to consider land use policy for the location where transit would be built before allocating grants.

While transit needs dense development to be successful, and vice versa, transportation and land use policy are currently conducted under separate bureaucracies that don’t necessarily communicate. Under the current process, some high-cost rail stations have been built in locations with low-density development, leading to transit that requires enormous ongoing subsidies and benefits few riders. The bill could improve coordination between land use and transportation planning but could go further by including some specific requirements for jobs or residential density for funding transit.

Another provision, however, would stand in the way of improved urban transportation. The bill would place new limits on autonomous vehicles for projects that receive federal funding. The bill would require local policymakers who want to build new automated transportation, or to replace existing transit with automated transit, to develop plans for workforce development for drivers who won’t be hired to operate these systems.

Transit is the place where autonomous vehicle technology will first be feasible because a predetermined route reduces the burden on an autonomous vehicle’s software. Some driverless shuttle buses are already in operation in the US. Driverless train technology has been feasible for decades. You may have experienced it in an airport people-mover. It doesn’t make sense to open new rail lines without using this technology that makes it feasible to operate more trains at lower cost over the long run. Presently, Honolulu’s rail system – currently under construction – is the country’s only automated rail project outside of airport trains and a few other people movers.

The United States has severe problems with cost control in transit, in construction as well as in operations. By treating public transportation as a jobs program rather than a crucial service to be executed well, US transit agencies make it difficult to maintain frequent service because each train requires one or more employees. In turn, infrequent service reduces the number of riders who find it worthwhile to take transit, leading to a death spiral of high costs, low revenues, and diminished political support. This contrasts starkly with countries that have embraced automated transit, such as Singapore and France, achieving frequent service and increasing ridership as a result.

Economic opportunity for all Americans is a crucial policy issue, but it should not be intertwined with transit policy as the House transportation bill would do. If Democrats are serious about improving transit – crucial for both economic and environmental goals – transit planning should be improved to coordinate with land use, and to operate as cost-effectively and efficiently as possible.

Photo by NABEEL SYED via Unsplash

If you are interested in speaking with Emily Hamilton about her research, please reach out to media@mercatus.org.

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