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Obama’s Transportation Legacy

March 06, 2014 By Conrad deFiebre, Transportation Fellow

With his high-speed intercity passenger rail initiative sidetracked by conservative opposition, some of it warranted, and other factors such as deep difficulties with California's project before construction even begins, President Obama is said to be pivoting to an emphasis on urban light rail as his transportation legacy.

Proof of this came in his appearance last week in St. Paul to tout the Green Line slated to begin service in June. And the $302 billion, four-year transportation proposal he unveiled then is being hailed as a big boost for transit. It would increase transit capital grants by 70 percent to $72 billion while roads and bridges would get a 22 percent boost to $206 billion.

In autocentric America, the latter is probably a necessary ingredient of any politically feasible transportation plan. But before conservatives start complaining about more subsidies for transit, they should look in the mirror at the $63 billion in non-user funding Obama would use to plug a huge hole in the Highway Trust Fund, caused by fuel tax cuts on autopilot over 21 years of failure to raise the levy for inflation.

The "free money" for transportation would come from up to $150 billion in discounted taxes on repatriation of U.S. firms' foreign profits, a gimmick also advanced by conservative U.S. House Ways and Means Chairman Dave Camp. Camp's initiative, part of a sweeping tax reform plan, already got an icy reception from his fellow righties. "Blah, blah, blah" was House Speaker John Boehner's reaction. Don't expect any more love there for Obama's sortie. Every one of his infrastructure proposals since the 2009 stimulus has gone nowhere in Congress.

Something will happen in Washington, however, before the current federal transportation bill expires and the Trust Fund hits empty this fall. The most likely outcome is a status quo extension, similar to the current two-year legislation, with extra cash from who knows where. Obama's generosity to both roads and transit probably won't be a factor.

In some ways, that might be a good thing. As pointed out by Phineas Baxandall and Tony Dutzik in a fascinating new blog, federal projections of increased driving that support arguments for more spending on roads have been wrong on the high side for years.

"The U.S. DOT's most recent biennial report to Congress on the state of the nation's transportation system, released last Friday, forecasts that total vehicle miles will increase between 1.36 to 1.85 percent each year through 2030," they report. "Just how out of whack is that? ... Vehicle travel hasn't increase by even 1 percent in any year since 2004 ...

"The new report uses for one of its scenarios the same flawed forecasting model that has overestimated vehicle travel 61 times out of 61 since 1999 ... In a particularly absurd twist, the U.S. DOT forecast doesn't even get the past right. The report 'projects' based on 2010 data that Americans drove 5 percent more miles in 2012 than they actually did. To hit the DOT forecast for 2014, Americans would need to increase their driving by 9 percent this year alone."

Phew! For the most wonkish among you, the authors provide links to relevant documentation, including the DOT report itself.

To be sure, U.S. driving did increase last year by 18.1 billion miles, which sounds impressive until you realize it was just 0.6 percent more than 2012, lagging a 0.7 percent rise in the population.

The latest Minnesota-specific DOT figures show a 2.1 percent decrease in VMT in December compared with December 2012.

Yes, that could have been skewed by lousy weather. But the long-term trend is clear, acknowledged even by the statistical wizards at the U.S. DOT: "A number of indicators point toward saturation in vehicle trips and vehicle miles of travel per person, with the peak of most per-person and per-household statistics occurring in 1995. Several factors could be possible explanations for this apparent saturation, such as the desire to limit the time spent in travel and replacing physical trips with electronic communication or online shopping."

Other factors figure in as well. Baby Boomers and their fading elders will increasingly be forced to give up their car keys in the face of time's toll, and they're not being replaced on the road by tech-savvy young adults. In place of diminished driving, transit, Amtrak, foot-powered transportation and, especially, intercity bus ridership are up.

According to a new DePaul University report, new discount operators like Megabus have nearly doubled their daily operations since 2010, saving their riders more than $1 billion a year with comfortable vehicles that allow Internet and cell phone connections, advantages over faster but five times costlier airline travel. Minnesota's nearly century-old Jefferson Lines is growing as well, up 8 percent in available seat-miles serving 65 towns and 25 colleges in the state.

"The car is our No. 1 competitor and it's an expense people can eliminate," Jefferson's Kevin Pursey told the Star Tribune. "For that kind of money, people are saying, 'I'm taking the bus.' "

Roads and bridges are important, too, not least as guideways for transit and intercity buses. Their chief deficiencies these days are in maintenance and repair of the entire aging system and expansion of targeted rural arteries. For urban mobility, smart highway congestion management and improved transit and nonmotorized alternatives are wiser choices than more and more driving lanes.

There's a small chance that next year's Congress will be more attuned to all these realities. Maybe then Obama could create a real legacy of fiscally sustainable transportation for the 21st century.

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