There is a primary election tomorrow here in California. This seems like a good time to think about what the candidates do say (and should say) about cities and transportation. Well over half of all Americans live in urban areas, and traffic congestion is a major issue in nearly all metropolitan areas. Since transportation consumes two-thirds of all the oil used in the U.S., transportation policy has obvious environmental impact. Since there has not really been much of a federal urban policy agenda since the Johnson administration, transportation policy is where the candidates can establish their ideas about what kinds of cities the U.S. should have.
Unfortunately, the candidates don't say much about transportation. In the new LA Times transportation column, Steve Hymon points out that the Democratic contenders support additional transit while the Republicans haven't said a thing except Huckabee, who wants to expand the I-95 in New Jersey. Obama (here is David Levinson's endorsement which nicely explains the transportation angle, though I'm not sold on space policy) supports many "smart growth" and livable community initiatives, which are good things but not necessarily good policies for the federal government to undertake considering the heterogeneity of community preferences. (Streetsblog notes that Obama doesn't mention transit on his website, however.) Clinton supports an expansion of rail funding and increasing development density. These ideas are all positive in the sense that it's good that candidates are thinking about cities and transportation, but I'm not confident that federal initiatives can be as flexible as urban policy needs to be in dealing with local concerns. I also don't think that rail investment is the best use of scarce transit dollars. Federal (and state, regional and local) transit policies should focus on the most effective ways to move people about, not how to move fancy trains about.
Where the federal government is most effective and should focus it's energy is on environmental issues and infrastructure finance. As the CAFE standards are increased, two reactions will occur. First, there will be a small increase in driving (the rebound effect) because the cost of driving went down. Ken Small and Kurt Van Dender estimate that the rebound effect is not great enough to eliminate the benefits from increased fuel economy, but a little but more driving by existing drivers plus driving by new drivers will further strain our infrastructure. The second effect is that the fuel tax collected per mile will decrease. This is problematic since the federal government relies of the gas tax to finance all kinds of transportation investment. This investment will have to decline (as % of GDP or per capita) unless new ways to pay for transportation are implemented. As it is, more state and local governments are using sales taxes to pay for roads and transit as declining federal money is inadequate for their needs. The best solution is to allow for tolls on freeways, and the money can be used as the local governments see fit. Tolls offer policy flexibility and force efficiencies on the existing infrastructure, reducing the need for new roads.
On the environment there are two factors that call for policy intervention. They are climate change and public health. Climate change can be addressed through cap and trade or Pigouvian taxes to discourage consumption. Public health is a much more immediate issue, I think, and one where government intervention can be quick and dramatically improve urban areas. There is overwhelming evidence that freeways are line source polluters. Vehicle emissions cause grave health problems for people (especially children) who live, work and play near freeways. Federal policy should focus on cleaning the air (or sealing the homes and schools near roads). By cleaning the air through improved emissions, the vehicles will become more fuel efficient as well. This accomplishes climate change policy while avoiding all the people who don't think climate change is a problem. Yet I don't hear any candidate talking about public health issues as part of their environmental strategy.
Ultimately, any transportation policies need to be malleable enough to be workable for the diverse nature of problems facing cities and movement. Federal policy should avoid being prescriptive. Rather, the successes of TEA-21 and ISTEA should be continued through even more flexibility and a focus on individual movement and accessibility. In addition, goods movement should be prepared to pay more for the benefits received from the publicly financed road networks. It is surprising that goods movement doesn't get as much attention from the federal government as it should. Hopefully the campaigns eventually talk more about these issues and how the federal government can help cities and transportation.