Answers to transportation ills need to come from unexpected funding

This is the second of a two-part Mobility Lab series. Part 1 looked at the big-picture history of transportation funding in the United States. Part 2 examines ways we can fund transportation in a future of flat federal funding.

The world of transportation is innovating and shifting at a clip no mere mortals can expect to follow easily, but one would never know it by simply glancing at the flat and seemingly unexcited way Congress has taken to keeping roads and transit barely patched.

Luckily, life does not end and begin on Capitol Hill.

States, localities, and companies are offering some truly inventive methods of finding funding sources to supplement what will be available from the federal government for maintaining and replacing crumbling roads, bridges and transit systems.

The public-private path

Let’s start with an example from Sao Paulo, Brazil, which offers perhaps a gold standard for public and private entities working together for public good. An incredible 50 percent of trips taken in Sao Paulo are by transit, but planners identified a gap, where city-operated buses and state-owned trains didn’t connect very well for travelers.

According to TheCityFix, the city constructed a seven-mile, six-stop underground metro line called Linha 4 with “$1.6 billion in public investment and $246 million in private investment from seven different financial institutions.”

As TheCityFix notes, the new line is “a resounding success, demonstrating that public collaboration with the private sector is possible” and:

  • it integrates several fragmented public transport systems
  • the line increases access to jobs for the marginalized living on the periphery of the city
  • by its second year of operation, Linha 4 met its demand target to serve 700,000 passengers per day and reduced commute times by about half an hour, and
  • the line had an estimated net present value of $364 million to the local economy and boasted average annual returns of 14.4 percent to the operator and 18.7 percent to shareholders.

A city that won’t wait for the feds

Back in this country, Miami’s city commissioners have decided enough is enough. Lacking certainty from federal funding, it’s taken matters into its own hands by creating a special fund to help think into the future – rather than constantly playing catch-up – about transportation projects.

Although the fund started with a mere $1.6 million when it was established last month, commissioners think the legislation will permit it to grow fast. The Miami Herald reports that other deposits into the fund will come from:

  • 20 percent of any unrestricted, one-time payments to the city of at least $500,000
  • 20 percent of any cash payment by developers for “air rights,” sold by the city’s public benefits program, excluding amounts reserved for affordable and workforce housing
  • 25 percent of Miami’s general fund ($615 million in 2016) from each budget year, and
  • new legislation that allows transit-oriented-developments to pay the city to receive reductions in parking requirements, which developers and activists worked together to push through.

As if all that isn’t impressive enough, Miami worked with several semi-autonomous entities to pitch in $30 million to get Tri-Rail trains connecting downtown to Palm Beach County by 2017.

The citizen-activist route

As we’ve seen with Mobility Lab’s own Transportation Techies and TransportationCamp, passionate movers and shakers can make change happen outside the policy and business avenues.

“Anyone can take action to make their bus or train ride more enjoyable. Even more important, by organizing, fundraising, and carrying out quick fixes, ordinary citizens [can get] transit decision-makers to take notice,” says Erin Barnes of ioby, which, along with TransitCenter, documented 10 projects throughout the U.S. where “community-led change is shifting the culture of transit agencies.”

Take a look at just these four incredible projects highlighted in Trick Out My Trip and you’ll no doubt want to devour the rest of the short report:

  • In a heavily industrial corridor of Brooklyn, N.Y., a dark and decidedly unappealing transit hub at 9th Street is being revitalized with funding provided to the community in order to demonstrate its vision to the Metropolitan Transit Authority of how the area could be improved.
  • The Atlanta Bicycle Coalition and MARTA teamed up to raise money for self-service bicycle maintenance kiosks at high-density MARTA transit stops. This is a brilliant and subtle way to get people thinking about how they can take more than one mode on their journeys.
  • PLAY Denver raised funds to create safe, stationary opportunities for children to play while waiting for the bus with their parents – a nice way of making that type of travel just a little bit more attractive and less stressful. Similarly, in Seattle, local leaders installed free libraries at bus stops across the city, offering a little fun and productivity for people on their journeys.
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PLAY Denver installing art.

Corporate leadership

On-demand technology companies like car2go, Zipcar, Uber, and Lyft are certainly performing a service by opening people’s minds to the fact that there are now many transportation options – something that hasn’t always been obvious in the past.

But what truly makes it apparent that these companies are onto something is that automotive titans like Daimler, Honda, and General Motors are getting into the mobility game.

Ford Motor Company has been perhaps the most outspoken about the need to adapt to new realities brought on by population, traffic congestion, air pollution, chronic sickness, millennial habits, and countless other social issues.

Ford mobility manager Erica Klampf recently predicted that the company’s semi-driverless cars will be on the roads in five years and that its e-bikes will be a real part of the solution to help people take more multi-modal trips.

Earlier this year, Ford announced the first round of winners for its Innovative Mobility Challenge Series, which awards more than $200,000 to winners who designed improvements in categories such as deliveries, software, and parking and traffic congestion. Some of the winners include:

  • An electric individual podcar in Argentina that launches out of a shuttle bus offers a better way to connect people to public transportation.
  • A Los Angeles-based crowdsourcing app called Crowd Park allows lot owners to set their prices based on demand and helps users to find information about flexible pricing and real-time alerts for near-expired spots.
  • MultiModal Transportation Platform app from Chongqing, China – where extreme congestion and the sharp mountains and valleys often require multiple modes of transportation – now combines city-based mass transit information about buses and trains with options for localized transportation such as bicycle rentals and rickshaws.

Transit advocates need to get louder to influence a quiet public

Of course, all of this is a roundabout way of saying that roads and transit in this country need funding from somewhere. All of the above examples are wonderful, but they are all makeshift. A larger dedicated fund, much like what Miami has initiated locally, is imperative at the national level.

The most logical and simple options for such a fund remain through a “pay at the pump” gas tax indexed for inflation and a tax in which drivers pay per mile driven.

But these are much harder done than said. In focus groups conducted a few years back by the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments and the Brookings Institution, it became abundantly clear that “people don’t understand transportation” and especially the way it’s funded.

As Streetsblog noted, people surveyed in the D.C. region:

Don’t see themselves and their own driving as contributors to the problem of congestion. They blame construction and other drivers (especially those from “other jurisdictions” – D.C. and Virginia residents love to beat up on “Maryland drivers”) – anything but their own driving. They assume that congestion pricing can’t work because everyone on the road is there because they have to be. They don’t think they, or their fellow drivers, have choices in travel behavior.

The Washington region is relatively well-served by transit and ridesharing, so many of them were probably wrong in assuming they don’t have options. Be that as it may, participants were supportive of adding new transportation options. Even the most car-centric people — those who live far outside the urban core and drive alone to work — thought it was important to build more transit and facilities for biking and walking. In fact, these improvements were, to many, a prerequisite to any pricing change.

That all seems to take us back to square one: continue to educate the public about transportation options (through pilots, by discussing the benefits, and by being louder than transit advocates have been in the past) and hopefully the public will one day become vocal enough about improving traffic to influence policymakers and other leaders.

Photos: Top, Linha 4 in Sao Paulo (Metro de Sao Paulo, Flickr, Creative Commons). Middle, a PLAY Denver project (PLAY Denver, Facebook).

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