If Not for Trump, Last Night Would Have Been Great for Transit

Last night had the makings of a historic election for transit. Voters in cities as varied as Raleigh, Indianapolis, and Los Angeles turned out to support ballot measures to dramatically expand bus and rail service. But the election of Donald Trump and the retention of GOP majorities in both houses of Congress cast a pall of uncertainty over transit agencies everywhere, with continued federal support for transit suddenly in doubt.

Transit backers had a stellar night in local elections, but the Trump win brings funding uncertainty. Photo: Seattle Chamber
In local elections, transit ballot measures performed well, but the Trump win brings broader uncertainty. Photo: Seattle Chamber

In the regions with major transit ballot initiatives, the returns look good. (You can track the results at The Transport Politic.)

Indianapolis area voters approved a comprehensive transit expansion package that will significantly upgrade bus service throughout Marion County.

Raleigh and the rest of Wake County voted for a similar package of additional bus service and BRT routes, as well as a commuter rail connection to Durham.

Atlanta handily passed a half-cent sales tax that will expand MARTA’s rail and bus networks, as well as a separate measure to fund local complete streets projects.

In Seattle, a $54 billion transit expansion package including 62 miles of light rail appears on its way to victory.

In Los Angeles, Measure M seems likely to clear the difficult two-thirds majority needed to pass, generating $42 billion for new rail and BRT lines over the next 40 years. And in the Bay Area, Measure RR also garnered enough votes to pass, securing funds to repair and upgrade BART for higher capacity.

One big local setback last night happened in Detroit and surrounding counties, where a historic regional transit package went down in a very narrow defeat. The margin was close enough that the proposal could be revived at a later date and stand a good chance of passing.

Overshadowing these results, of course, was the national Trump/GOP wave, which could threaten transit in profound ways.

Every major transit ballot measure counts on a degree of federal support for capital projects. But this year’s Republican Party platform calls for eliminating all federal funding for transit (and walking and biking).

If that plank were to become law, the effect would be felt in every major city, not just the ones that passed new ballot measures (which would actually be somewhat more insulated from federal policy turmoil). Transit agencies would have to cope with sudden funding shortfalls, jeopardizing the nuts and bolts of running buses and trains.

Past GOP efforts to make good on the threat to zero out transit funding have failed, with some Republicans joining Democrats to thwart the attempts. The last transportation bill, the FAST Act, also sets aside about $10 billion a year for transit through 2021, lasting beyond Trump’s first term.

But the Republican position in Washington is going to be much stronger now than at any point since total opposition to transit became enshrined as party doctrine. Current laws can be rewritten, and transit riders and advocates can’t take anything for granted and will have to guard against an all-out assault on federal transit funding.

50 thoughts on If Not for Trump, Last Night Would Have Been Great for Transit

  1. I’m no expert in draining swamps or making anything great, but if the goal was to get rid of a corrupt existing system, wouldn’t you want to zero out subsidies for all transportation (including highways, rail, and aviation), and let them all pay their own way? Cutting funding for transit but leaving it in place for highways doesn’t seem like an economically smart move – I thought you can typically generate more jobs and economic activity by investing in transit in dense areas than in investing in highways in rural areas – i.e. the return on a dollar of investment in a mile of a new subway vs a mile of a new highway vs a mile of a new bike lane, etc.

  2. You seem to forget that rural areas are grossly over-represented in congress. Your proposal may be economically smart and good for the USA, but politically…

  3. I thought that’s why people voted for Trump – because politics was preventing us from putting smart economics first. Any Trump supporters on here want to chime in?

  4. As to whether Trump actually wants to build infrastructure or not is unknown, but both houses of congress are clearly on the more highways, less or no trains page. Unless Trump wants to fight with is own party on the issue, we are likely to see spending on highways to nowhere.

  5. First and foremost, I don’t think spending priorities of any type should be enshrined in a Constitution.

    Other than that, just a bigger pot for wasteful road building projects, contains no fix-it first language, it is unclear weather walking or biking is considered transportation (neither is mentioned in the language), and it is also unclear if that money can or cannot be used for pension obligations for road workers. All in all, a very car-centric piece.

    This was pushed on the ballot by road builders and unions under the guise of “safety”, not by popular demand.

  6. Trump has the proven capability to start a fight by walking into an empty room.

    In the debates, he even fought in public with his running mate, so…

  7. You say that transit could eventual passing Detroit. Its a catch 22. Since transit failed the young educated voters who want transit will move away and the remaining residents of the region will be the more anti transit group.

  8. Trump has talked about building high speed rail. It will be interesting to see what he does with both inter and intra city transit.

  9. Old style, reality based thinking. You need to get in touch with this brave, new, facts-are-irrelevant world that has such horrors in it.

  10. The biggest problem is that Trump, while he has expressed interest in funding rail and transit, doesn’t wield that much power when it comes to actually pushing funding through. That power lies in Congress. He has influence on what might get funded, but he also has a sour relationship with the GOP.

  11. He has the power of veto, so unless Republicans have more than 66 percent Congress, we don’t have to worry about transit.

  12. Although there are lots of reasons to not like Trump, if you watched his speech last night, you would know he supports infrastructure.

  13. See:

    Trump is not blatantly anti-transit, but his advisers (including Pete Navarro and Wilbur Ross) believe transportation investments should be privately financed. Thus, Trump’s published infrastructure plan favors toll roads and perhaps some rail projects subsidized by jointly developed real estate (like BrightLine in Florida or the JR high speed rail proposal in Texas). Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor Master Plan is dead in the water, and unless urban transit operators figure out a way to generate direct revenue to fund 100% of capital and operating costs, transit is dead too.

  14. The expectation is that Trump + Republicans will shrink the Federal government.

    The Federal gas tax is now a fraction of what it was in 1993, and Republicans aren’t expected to significantly increase that. Same thing for income taxes. We are moving toward a low-tax, low-service Federal government.

    It’s time for states to stop belly-aching start to increase state revenues and services to compensate. This situation should be especially favorable for wealthy states like New York, which have always sent more to the Federal government than they received.

    You want transit in your state? Then fund transit from the state budget! This should be quite feasible, now that the gas tax is only 40% of what it was in 1993 (inflation-adjusted). The Feds cannot stop states from building transit.

    You want high-speed rail? Then build high-speed rail. Like CA is doing. In the Northeast, states could join together in a consortium (confederation?) and work together on regional projects like an improved Northeast Corridor.

    You want everyone in your state to have health insurance? Then run a Romneycare plan, as MA did even before Obamacare was put in place. Or do single-payer in your state. The Feds cannot stop a state from providing health insurance for its citizens.

    America might be a failed state in the making. But that doesn’t mean that every state in the Union has to become a failed state.

  15. No. The problem is that transit is more environmentally friendly and healthy, and so you have an external cost if you allow the free market to decide the best outcome.

  16. True, but also if we don’t pull states along we’ll never reach climate goals. And CO2 emissions don’t care about state lines.

  17. “But the Republican position in Washington is going to be much stronger now than at any point since total opposition to transit became enshrined as party doctrine.”

    I do not think this is so. The Republicans controlled every bit of government between 2001 and 2006, and in those days, Republican legislators had actually voted for the Republican President, unlike (I suspect) in 2016.

  18. Sure, take him at his word.

    It takes congress to appropriate funding. The Senate majority leader(GOP) just said Trump’s infrastructure plan would not be a priority.

  19. Well, San Francisco has been controlled by dems/progressives for decades and our transit continues to suck. While LA is passing measures under the support of its leaders to build rail and expand transit, SF just whines about how pathetic Muni is and complains about worsening traffic. Sure, you have one or two half-baked, bloated projects under construction, like the Central Subway (to nowhere) and Van Ness BRT (decades too late).

  20. I highly doubt that Trump would veto any transportation package because it didn’t have enough funds for trains and buses. Hopefully, he won’t have to approve any at all, as FAST is funded through 2021.

  21. While generally speaking I think you’re right about Bay Area whining too much about traffic and doing too little in terms of aggressive transit projects, the Central Subway is going to kick ass, and Van Ness BRT will also be a solid project. The Bay just needs to get its ass in gear and create a cohesive, region-wide plan, just like LA.

  22. That’s a different issue (in general) than what Elizabeth was talking about. Environmental externalities are all governments’ responsibilities to take care of.

  23. I’m in favor of toll roads as it’ll most likely have an effect of building less roads in the long run since people hate paying for things directly.

  24. But only if the taxpayers have zero liability or responsibility if the project goes bankrupt. The normal model of “heads I win, tails you lose” has got to stop.

  25. By design and function, the Central Subway is a joke and will do little if anything to relieve congestion or get more people to use transit. Van Ness BRT will only save a few minutes of travel time (assuming no delays in operation) for its entire length. Trust me, any time savings will be lost when riders make their transfers to bus or rail.

  26. I understand that she’s talking about expanding at a state level, which is “okay” as long as the ramifications don’t impact other states. But we cannot allow “other states” to become failed states with regards to emissions.

  27. The problem is that toll roads don’t really work if existing non-tolled roads get to keep their subsidies.

  28. I have a hard time picturing this guy not using his power of veto for trains. Buses however suck (pass you by, show up late, bunch up, take forever) anyway.

  29. Good bus service is the base for any strong transit network. Do not write them off because of the lack of investment they’ve been subjected to, that only makes it worse.

  30. Unless the tolled road(s) is/are the most convenient way to get from point A to point B, otherwise you’re probably correct.

  31. I agree especially on emissions, although in reality it seems to be quite difficult to do this. Take the state that I live in: Indiana. Indiana has protested the Obama administrations’ attempts to impose tougher coal power plants emissions requirements at every turn. They’ve resisted all of these as job killers (although there’s very few jobs impacted in reality) and taken their objection to the courts every time. It’s a fight that needs to be fought but it’s a difficult one.

  32. lol, this is such an earnest response but the Republican position here isn’t actually about policy, it’s about catering to rural distrust of cities.

  33. Especially in the Northeast, most “local” transit systems cross one or more state boundaries. What would happen, say, to NYC if the NY government decided to fund service but NJ shut off the tap? (not at all unrealistic, given what’s already happened) It could be the equivalent of those (in)famous superhighways that stop at state borders because only one side could agree on payment.

    I do however share your fear of our becoming a failed state. I’m not sure I want my children or eventual grandchildren to see it but if something doesn’t change we may end up devolving into regional confederations.

  34. Sovereign states can use trade policy in negotiating with their neighbors. The USA is a bunch of non-sovereign states with a permanent free-trade agreement between them. So yes, NY would not have as much leverage in such negotiations as it would if it were sovereign.

    But realistically… if NJ shuts off the tap (say, by cancelling the ARC tunnel and then having an existing Amtrak tube fail), NJ residents will suffer the most. The immediate drop in NJ home values would be much greater than whatever the ARC might have cost to begin with.

    If there’s a shared bus system and NJ cuts off the tap, then the answer is simple: stop running buses to NJ! A rail system would involve more up-front investment, requiring a longer-term commitment. But there is nothing stopping states from entering into long-term commitments with other states; and since they are not sovereign, they cannot manipulate the currency when paying back their debts.

    Really, none of this is sounding so different from the way things are today.

    > It could be the equivalent of those (in)famous superhighways that stop at state borders because only one side could agree on payment.

    In such cases, I wonder whether the highway was really necessary to begin with it. Certainly it seems like a waste of money for the side that built it unilaterally. One result of federal dollars might have been to overbuild our Interstate system.

  35. Roads have too many externalities for private toll roads to really make sense. We need to stop this fetishized worship of free markets and privatization as the solution to all our problems.

    As long as states have a choice about how they build their roads, I don’t care. Oklahoma can build as many privatized boondoggle toll roads as they like, as long as NY taxpayers don’t have to bail them out if they fail.

  36. The Bay Area also has a higher rate of automobile ownership than LA (although they drive them slightly less; but only slightly). Really, Northern vs. Southern CA are two peas in a pod.

    What’s really sad is that SF is so outrageously wealthy, and still can’t find the money to build a decent transit system — even as people now endure some of the worst commutes in the world.

  37. Nobody said they’re a panacea. But they do make sense and can make a lot more sense than what we’ve done in the US. Europe has lead and continues to lead in many public-private-partnerships on roads and other essential infrastructure with tolls and such. I’m advocating for making choices when things make sense. So far doing things completely in the public realm for roads has resulted in a huge oversupply of roads.

  38. Republicans NEVER shrink the federal government. They just make sure that more of the money is extracted in waste, fraud, corruption, and graft, and less of it is spent on useful stuff. 🙁 This has been true since Nixon.

    Anyway, we will have to rely on the states.

  39. The USA is already a failed state, most people just haven’t noticed it yet. The question is what happens *next*.

    The USSR was a failed state. Long live Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Krygyzstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Armenia, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Moldova.

  40. New York and Massachusetts have sued Ohio and Indiana over their toxic coal power plant emissions at least twice before. The toxic emitters have lost in federal court each time, so far.

    I remember there was a veiled threat of trade sanctions from New York against Ohio during one of these cases.

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