Lisa Schweitzer Part 6: Local Funding

In what is promised to be the last part of her exegesis of my CityLab post, Lisa agrees with me about the problems with federal transit funding, but can’t admit to it, because of the slippery slope argument.

She writes:

A Political Economy of Access: Infrastructure, Networks, Cities, and Institutions by David M. Levinson and David A. King
A Political Economy of Access: Infrastructure, Networks, Cities, and Institutions by David M. Levinson and David A. King

Ok, so I’m torn here because I am usually the only urban scholar who says openly that walking, biking, and transit advocates have overstated their claims to global benefits in trying to make a case for their slice of federal dollars, and I applaud Levinson for even saying so. Being brilliant is easy for somebody like Levinson. Being brave enough to say something this politically unpopular with the vast majority of scholars in your field? That’s a lot harder, and I’m grateful for his not leaving me to be the only one critical of my field’s claims about our entitlement to crawl into the federal taxpayers’ pockets.

That said, I’m not sure I am on board. I seriously do not know what I think here.

The slippery slope argument is of course a slippery slope, since it justifies doing nothing any time, any where.

She writes in favor of demonstration grants:

The real pain comes in thinking about those places that don’t have deep pockets. Without difficult-to-justify federal capital subsidies, there is no Portland as it exists now, and while I die inside every time one of my starry-eyed students/philosopher-kings advocates for yet another slow light rail in Los Angeles “because Portland!”, federal subsidies have given the US truly important social experiments with transit, given how the feds shoveled out for BART, Portland, and DC’s metro. Nope it wasn’t particularly just or rational, but it sure has been interesting and transformative, and for the better. In concert with transit experiments in Europe, Asia, and South America, it’s mattered a lot to urban scholarship.

The problem is of course opportunity cost. Portland I believe could have done it themselves had they wanted to, if they truly believed in what they were doing. Not that I fault them for asking for federal money, I just fault the US for giving it to them. (Just as I don’t fault the person making the bribe – they’re just doing their job, just the one taking it – they’re not.) What did we not do because we gave money to Portland. If it’s fewer buses where that would have been valuable, or less food for the poor, or fewer large screen TVs for the taxpayer is an ethical question of what you do with the money, but by spending money on LRT in Portland, something else was not done. But, you want to fund 1 instance of 1 new technology for Science!, okay, but you only get 1. Science too has diminishing returns. (The Morgantown PRT for instance).

Even if there is a better way for cities to be, and certainly there is, there is no evidence that the Federal government knows this better than locals. I don’t have a problem with federal financing, as long as the loans are paid back, with interest, by the revenue from the project (or ancillary spillovers like adjacent development). But I fail to see any reason for the federal government to systematically fund capital intensive low return-on-investment, local benefitting investments.

Then there is the spatial equity question. Undoubtedly some places are poorer than others. But why should the jurisdiction be subsidized rather than the poor residents. It makes more sense to me to give grants to poor people in Mississippi than to jurisdictions in Mississippi that happen to have poor people. This would be demand-side rather than supply-side support, but that will lead to better transportation for the people as a whole, not just the lucky ones served by one expensive project, (and fewer ribbon-cuttings for their elect.).