Even by the standards of an era in which we have a 140-character attention span and allow Renee Zellweger’s plastic surgery to masquerade as news, this was a remarkable week for missed opportunities in communication about transportation. If we wonder why debate in this country is so banal, we need to look no further than what our leaders and the press chose to emphasize in the field of transportation this week.
Released earlier this week the President’s proposed budget has a lot to recommend it in terms of transportation: more emphasis on transit, a continuing commitment to new performance measures to judge how and where we spend money, and reliance on competitive incentives for innovation at the metropolitan level. And his Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx reinforced some of that fresh thinking with several speeches and a strategic plan that makes it clear that just sinking more dollars into the old formulas of the 1950s and state highway departments won’t provide the mobility that 21st century Americans need. On a policy basis, the Obama Administration understands the importance of multi-modalism and urban areas. Any of the President’s and Secretary’s proposals should have provoked an rich and rewarding debate.
When it comes to funding the transportation program and implementing true policy change, both the Administration and Congress quickly became muddled thinkers before the proverbial ink was dry on the press releases. With a direct user fee like a gas tax ruled off the table by so-called “conservatives” who want big government highways but don’t want to pay for them, Senators and Representatives resumed their annual speculation about one-time budget gimmicks and contortions of the tax code in order to pay for transportation without, uh, really paying for it. Yet again, the most ludicrous statements on Capitol Hill are those that solemnly intone, “We need to look at all options……” – as if the search for revenue were some scientific inquiry into a natural mystery, a fiscal version of the genome. Rather than acknowledging that every possible revenue source has been already studied to death over the past decade of hearings, blue ribbon committees, and white papers, do they really think some wizard is going to invent the cold fusion of infrastructure finance that nobody has thought of yet? Meantime, with everyone (even “conservatives!”) focused on revenue, Angie Schmitt at Streetsblog was one of the few journalists to astutely focus on the expenditure side, and take the position that true conservatives should take: that we should review our spending patterns before we assume more money is the sole answer.
In New York City, it was exciting to hear Mayor Bill de Blasio mention improved bus service in his second State of the City Address. His Administration continues to push forward progressive policies under the able leadership of Commissioner Polly Trottenberg. Like the intentions of President Obama and Secretary Foxx, there’s a lot of substance in what Mayor de Blasio and Commissioner Trottenberg want to achieve. Along with their strong support for street safety, the City DOT initiatives in collaboration with the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) City Transit Division bode well for the 2.8 million daily bus riders who suffer some of the slowest bus operating speeds in the nation. Improving bus service in the five boroughs is probably the most significant and cost effective action that could be taken to benefit the largest number of actual and potential riders in the city.
Well, uh, but no. Unfortunately, much of the press coverage of the transportation portion of the Mayor’s speech focused on a suggestion of expanded ferry service, which, while cool and glamorous, would serve far fewer people at far higher cost. Later on Errol Louis’ “Inside City Hall” television show, it was disappointing to hear De Blasio deflect a question about the MTA’s capital program by calling it “an Albany problem,” as if the city has no stake in improving transit.
Finally, the most tragic news of the week also came with its own oversimplification and elected officials missing the point while pursuing their own publicity. In a suburb of New York, a motorist made a tragic error and drove her car on to the railroad tracks into the path of a passenger train, despite flashing red lights, ringing bells, a gate and a train whistle. The motorist and five of the train passengers died in the crash, which is indisputably a tragedy for all concerned. But sad as it is, it’s not an incident of any national importance in a nation that averages 2,216 road-rail grade crossing incidents per year. Not to sound harsh, but if a motorist ignores loud bells, bright red lights, a gate and a wailing train whistle, there is little a railroad (or a locomotive engineer, who in this case was running lower than the speed limit) can do about it in the few seconds before impact. Yet initial press coverage of this incident – the result of an inexplicable mistake by one motorist at a single point in time – instantly became national news. The Governor of New York, who has exhibited very little concern for the millions of New Yorkers who endure an overburdened transit system every day of the year, showed up at the site of this incident as if there was something he could do about that. Some elected officials hinted they would hold hearings. Like a nation obsessed with Ebola causing one death while ignoring measles and other diseases that kill thousands, the press and public officials paid attention to the dramatic aspects of transportation this week, rather than attending to the aspects that affect everyday people.
Transportation finance, operations and safety are all technically challenging topics. They don’t get any closer to being solved when our leaders and the press that covers them fail to focus on the issues that really count.
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