Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Transportation on my mind...

Before heading over to Marquette University Law School yesterday to watch Mayor Barrett and County Executive Walker debate Milwaukee's transit future, I came across three other transportation stories making news that day.

The first, in the Philadelphia Inquirer, headlined a call from the I-95 Corridor Coalition , made up of east coast transportation and police officials, for a doubling of highway spending and "drastically" increased use of transit and rail in the corridor extending from Maine to Florida. Interestingly, a coalition spokesman acknowledged that neither the states nor feds have the capacity to fund the estimated $71 billion annual cost and argued that public-private partnerships be utilized to help fund improvements. That is the direction in which the Pennsylvania Legislature may be headed in light of proposals to lease the Pennsylvania Turnpike and authorize privately built toll lanes on existing highways.

The second and third articles, from the Associated Press and Wall Street Journal, detailed the "surge" in transit ridership nationwide during the second quarter and the significant challenges facing many transit agencies as they try to accommodate it. The AP story laid out the arguments for and against increased federal funding, while the Journal story reported on specific proposals in Congress to boost mass transit funding.

Armed with this context, I listened to the mayor and county executive lay out their respective transportation visions and argue again about use of the $91.5 million in federal funds authorized 17 years ago for a Milwaukee transit project. As I did so, I couldn't help but reflect on the following:
  • While we continue to argue with each other on the local level, other mega-regions have formed powerful coalitions to advocate in Washington for their collective transportation needs. Who is more likely to get their fair share of an insufficient federal transportation funding pie, huge regions of the country who band together to fight for their parochial interests, or mid-sized metropolitan areas whose elected officials can't even agree on priorities among themselves?

  • Not only Pennsylvania, but countless other states are acknowledging that their transportation infrastructure needs and those of the nation as a whole are so staggering that non-public funding and/or operation of parts of that infrastructure, as well as congestion pricing or other tolling mechanisms, must be contemplated as at least part of the solution. Ironically, the decrease in driving and popularity of smaller vehicles is making the problem even more acute, as gasoline tax revenue is no longer an elastic source of revenue. Is Wisconsin behind the eight ball in awakening to these realities?

  • The Journal article notes that "momentum is building in Congress" to increase funding for public transportation, signaling good news for those counting on greater federal support to build and operate light rail, bus rapid transit and/or commuter rail in southeast Wisconsin. At the same time, however, both that article and the AP story describe the monumental challenges facing transit systems in paying for existing bus and rail service. That reality - combined with a depleted Federal Highway Fund that has some in Washington talking about diverting transit dollars for highway needs - reflects the challenges Milwaukee will face in attempting to obtain federal money for new transit services.

Of course, the fundamental lesson here is that transportation needs not only here in southeast Wisconsin, but across the country, are immense, and that other states and metro areas are objectively assessing those needs and developing strategic, diversified and cohesive approaches to meeting them. If indeed Washington is poised to provide more money, then it's a pretty safe bet that those with the best plans and the most unity will be first in line to get it.

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