Transit Equity?

The Obama administration announced new criteria for awarding Department of Transportation grants under the Federal Transit Administration. The Bush administration's coldhearted measurements like improving efficiency and shortening commuters' travel time are out. Fairness is in.

The new fairness doctrine (unrelated to the attempt to control talk radio) was introduced by DOT Secretary Ray LaHood in January. Public Radio International summarized:

Fair treatment, say [sic] the administration, includes fair access to good transportation across communities ... we're going to recognize all of the benefits that transit projects provide, like environmental benefits, mobility benefits, benefits to low-income communities.

PRI offers two recent examples of what this reorientation of values will mean:

One example of that in the DC area is a bus grant that is going towards Prince George's County in Maryland and other areas throughout the DC region.

The money, 15 million dollars, will go towards improving 2,600 bus stops... The improvements will be in the form of better signage, new shelters, more benches and better lighting. The project wasn't designed to shorten commute time; instead, it aims to get people on buses who wouldn't be riding buses otherwise.

"This will serve economically underdeveloped areas, areas with lots of African Americans, Latinos, Asians -- it's definitely targeted at those neighborhoods."

Once upon a time, bus stops were under the local jurisdiction of a city, county, or region.  Not all bus stops across the nation were equal. Some cities are wealthier and have more money to spend on infrastructure. Some cities are run more efficiently. Some might have little money but have chosen to make bus stops a high funding priority. When the federal government enters the business of building bus stops, inequality among bus stops becomes (some might argue) indefensible; federal money must be spent "fairly." And furthermore, the Obama administration targets "economically underdeveloped areas" because they interpret fairness as redressing past inequality.

When you take from the rich and give to the poor in the name of "fairness," at least the poor might end up with more money. In this case, they get..."better signs" -- excuse me, "signage" at bus stops. Laughably, the comment, "[t]he project wasn't designed to shorten commute time," is meant as praise.

Obama loves to talk about public/private ventures, usually as code for government usurping the autonomy of private business. In the case of bus stops, newsstands, etc. -- what collectively are known as "street furniture" -- the public-private partnership seems to be working. Over the last decade, municipalities have entered into lucrative contracts with advertisers who pay for the privilege of installing free street furniture. Boston takes in almost $2 million a year from a company called Wall USA that manages four hundred bus stops, newsstands, and information kiosks for the city. Chicago leads the pack with a $300-million contract with JCDecaux to manage two thousand sites over twenty years ($15 million/year). 

Cities get state-of-the-art bus stops to encourage public transportation and revenue they can spend on the less fortunate. Seems like a win-win situation.

Liberals have raised a few objections. Some argue that it's not fair for private companies to profit from public property. Imagine if the nation's bus stops were turned into an outdoor art gallery. Bus stops lights ought to be powered by solar panels, etc.

The biggest problem, though, is that advertisers get a better return from the bus stops on the National Mall than the ones in Prince Georges' County; their street furniture is less likely to be vandalized on Fifth Avenue than on Gun Hill Road. Thus, the Obama administration feels a sense ofduty to step in with ARRA funds. Questions not asked: Are the funds being spent wisely? Will the project help commuters get to work? Can the country afford to bring every poor community's infrastructure up to the standards of the wealthiest?

A more ominous example of the new priorities in action: In February 2010, the FTA withdrew a $70-million grant to the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) for the Oakland Airport Connector (OAC) "due to multiple civil rights violations." To rub salt in the wound, the money was then distributed to other Bay Area projects. The OAC is a 3.2-mile express overhead monorail that will link the Airport to the BART subway network. The project will provide thousands of jobs -- many, as BART points out, to minorities and to "Disadvantaged Business Enterprises." For those who care about such things, it will encourage passengers away from taking CO2-spewing taxis to the airport. It will improve the competitiveness of the Oakland Airport, bringing more tax revenues to the city government. It is supported by some of the biggest leftists in the country: Congresswoman Barbara Lee, Oakland Mayor Ron Dellums, the Oakland City Council, etc.

And yet, the OAC didn't pass muster with the FTA. Liberals used to support all public transportation projects, but there are more radical forces pushing their own agendas. The New York Times reported

"This is a powerful statement by the Obama administration saying that a project is not shovel-ready until it is fair," said Guillermo Mayer, a staff lawyer for Public Advocates, the nonprofit law firm that filed the original civil rights complaint against BART.

Public Advocates Inc. (dedicated to "transit equity") stated in a press release that "[l]ow-income people and communities of color will now have the chance they were denied at the start of this process to shape the project and to share fairly in its benefits."

In practical terms, this means the express airport train didn't make any stops through the poor neighborhoods along its route. Turning an airport express into a local train through areas of high crime might not encourage ridership. Secondly, BART uses more public funding per capita than the Oakland city bus system -- for obvious reasons, it would seem. It costs more to build overhead monorails and subway tunnels than to operate buses on city streets. This offers an opportunity for opponents to inject race into the issue: Minorities tend to ride Oakland buses while whites are jetting off to Goldman Sachs meetings and European vacations. It's not fair!

The Oakland Airport Connector might not be an essential use of public funds, but the DOT's fairness criterion nevertheless establishes dangerous precedents. No public works project is "shovel-ready until it is fair"? We cannot build an airport express train because it' express train? "Low-income people and communities of color" now have the determining vote on federal spending -- at a time when the Obama administration is exploding federal spending and expanding federal control over more and more of the economy? 

What's next -- challenging the use of federal funds on highway projects in states that are predominantly white or Republican, or above the national average in any way? 

The FTA is one small federal agency, but it seems clear that Obama would like "fairness" to govern all public spending.