As federal lawmakers draft a new surface transportation bill, local leaders are urging them to give cities a bigger piece of the funding pie and pursue a large-scale reorganization of the way transportation spending is allocated.
The message from mayors is clear: cities are the drivers of the country’s economy, so it only makes sense that Washington invests directly in their infrastructure.
But historically, that’s not how transportation spending works. Most federal highway dollars are sent to the states, which then divvy them out to cities. Only about 7 percent of federal highway funding is sent directly to metro areas, according to the Brookings Institution.
Organizations like the U.S. Conference of Mayors and the National League of Cities say metro areas need a larger share of that funding as Congress crafts the successor to SAFETEA-LU, the surface transportation law that expired in 2009 and funds highways, roads and transit across the country.
Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed – who leads a city that is infamous for its congestion – endorsed a “completely overhauled” system of infrastructure funding at an event in Washington Tuesday. He advocated for more direct allocations to cities, highlighting the fact that most Americans live and work in metro areas.
Reed, who leads the U.S. Conference of Mayors’ transportation committee, also said that highway expansion should be a low priority as Congress moves forward with its transportation bill. Reed said he supports maintenance and repair to highways, as well as improvements to arterials, but new construction should not be emphasized.
Those who support expanding the role of metros say it no longer makes sense to focus on highways since the interstate highway system has already accomplished its goal of connecting regions. Today, the challenge Americans face daily is their struggle to travel within cities, largely due to congestion. As a result, Reed endorsed an approach to transportation that, in addition to giving more funding directly to metro areas, would place a higher priority on improvements to transit as well as pedestrian and bike paths, which he says are important to city residents.
Cities saw their role in federal highway spending expanded in the 1991 highway bill, but 20 years later, states have still retained much of their decision-making power, and some states even had direct control over decisions made by metropolitan planning organization, known as MPOs, which are charged with making long-term planning in metro areas.
"I think what you’re hearing is frustration with the way that we’ve always done things, and here in this pivotal moment in our economic history, we need a new approach,” said Robert Puentes, a senior fellow in Brookings' Metropolitan Policy Program, in an interview with Governing.
The mayors conference also released the results of a survey to which 176 mayors responded. Most said they would only support an increase in the federal gas tax if it was accompanied by a greater share of funding directly to cities and metro areas. Eighty percent of the mayors indicate highway expansion should be a low priority for the country.
The sentiments are part of a growing turf battle between states and cities as the new transportation bill is being written. The American Association of State Highway Transportation Officials (AASHTO) has called for a larger percentage of funding for states. Given the emphasis on federal debt and deficit reduction -- and the likelihood that that there will be less federal money for transportation than in years past -- the battle between cities and states for the remaining funds could be fierce.
Puentes said that may actually be an advantage to cities, since heightened scrutiny of the spending may be favorable to their cause.
The position also puts metro areas at odds with some state transportation directors – especially those in rural states – who endorse the current ratio of transit funding and wouldn't be open to an increase. AASHTO has, however, supported increased transit spending.
Local officials have felt like they receive the short end of the stick when it comes to federal transportation funding given the path federal money takes via the state government, where there are often more rural legislators than urban ones. That can create an “imbalance from the economic reality,” Reed said.
“When you look at how dollars are deployed at the state level, they’re deployed in a fashion that is inconsistent with where jobs are and where the economy is created,” Reed said. “Now, that was absolutely fine 10 or 20 years ago when America was the center of economic dominance in the world. But we can no longer afford that kind of differentiation between where the real economy is occurring, where real jobs are being created, and old school politics, which is exactly what that is.”
The position of Reed and the mayors could be gaining traction. The mayors’ conference was scheduled to meet with Rep. John Mica, who chairs the House’s transportation committee, Tuesday. Previously, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has endorsed greater direct funding to cities, saying that empowering metro regions would help to alleviate pollution and congestion.
There are several options for how, exactly, the role of cities could be expanded. The federal government could simply increase the percentage of highway funding cities receive. But more likely to gain traction is the idea of an infrastructure bank or federal lending program that would help leverage federal dollars against local revenue as more cities generate their own money for transportation projects. Those types of proposals would allow locals to accelerate their projects and allow the feds to stretch their dollars further.
That's what Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa hopes will happen after county voters there approved a sales tax in 2008 that is expected to generate $40 billion for transportation projects over the next 30 years. A group of 10 counties making up the Atlanta metro area is pursuing a referendum next summer that could generate $7 billion for transportation projects.
Reed downplayed his position as a political battle while still insisting cities should be the focal point of transportation policy. “I don’t think it’s urban versus rural,” Reed said. “It’s just where the jobs are.”