In these challenging times, how is money for transportation best spent? A new report from Transportation for America, Learning from the 2009 Recovery Act, recalls the spirit of calamity during the subprime mortgage crisis, while searching for answers today. The report looks to answer the question of how transportation money is best spent, should another round of stimulus money deliver fresh relief. However, the recommendations can apply to any transportation funding that might become available, particularly at a time when job creation is crucial.
The report delivers a clear message: the best way to spend transportation money to create jobs is to fund public transit and maintenance. The worst way is on new road projects. As the report explains, for the 2009 American Reinvestment and Recovery Act (ARRA), a “dollar spent on public transportation produced 70 percent more job hours than an ARRA dollar spent on highways.” Transit preventive maintenance had the greatest impact per dollar—and has the bonus impact of allowing transit to be up and running quickly when the economy improves. As the report puts it, “we’ll need transit service for the economy to bounce back quickly.”
Indeed, money spent on transit has a double impact. It helps maintain jobs and keeps the economy afloat, and it keeps the transit system ready for future operations. As Stephen Lee Davis, Director of Communications for Smart Growth America, told me, “If we don’t allow transit systems to spend the money on operations, they won’t be there when we need it. They can’t just flip a switch.” Buses will be “not getting maintained, they won’t have enough drivers, they won’t have enough maintenance people.”
Davis pointed to the experience of Atlanta, which shut down a major bus line and cut over half their bus service during the Great Recession and spent “the better part of five years rebuilding. The moral is clear; maintaining the current bus system will better prepare the region for the future. Indeed, the current bus slowdown due to the pandemic, while perhaps unavoidable, can make life difficult for critical workers, from caregivers to health-care providers to grocery store clerks, who might be unable to practice social distancing on a crowded bus. “Buses should thus maintain a schedule as close to normal as possible,” said Davis.
Fortunately, the CARES Act, passed by the federal government on March 27th 2020 to aid the economy in the current crisis, includes $25 billion for transit that will go directly toward preserving jobs. “This is a huge improvement over what they did 10 years ago,” said Davis. “All this money is intended for use on operations, and there is no more effective way to spend money on transit, I mean in the short term, for preserving jobs.”
It seems we have learned something since the days of ARRA, when “A third of all flexible spending went to the least effective category for creating jobs: new road construction,” says the report. Indeed, in 2009 and 2010, many states followed the 80 / 20 rule based on gas taxes, that 80% of funding go to roads, rather than taking advantage of the flexibility offered by ARRA.
This is despite the fact that public polls consistently show huge public support for road maintenance and nearly as much support for public transit. Thus, in a 2011 poll, “91 percent of voters believe that maintaining and repairing our roads and bridges should be the top or a high priority,” states a 2011 Smart Growth America analysis. Currently, according to the new report, 79 percent support prioritizing road repair and public transit; 61 percent even support an outright moratorium on new roads for the next ten years. Buses have strong public support and are a crucial means of preserving jobs.
The DC Region During the Financial Crisis
In 2010, the DC region was able to take advantage of the one part of ARRA that dedicated a large part of its money to transit, the Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) program. TIGER grants were based on “stimulating the economy and creating jobs,” says the report. Chris Zimmerman, who was on the Arlington County Board at the time, recalled that all three jurisdictions—Maryland, the District, and Virginia—worked closely in crafting a cohesive proposal. The DC region was one of only 3 percent of applicants that obtained funds from this scarce pot of money, almost $59 million for improving bus transportation and other multi-modal efforts in DC, Maryland, and Virginia. The original proposal called for “dedicated bus lanes, TSP , skip stop service, enhancing pedestrian access, real-time passenger information, and enhanced bus stops.” One notable result of this money is Metroway, the region’s first bus rapid transit (BRT) line that continues to serve Arlington and Alexandria.
The region thought big early, realizing that bus service was the weakest link in regional transit, and the best opportunity to improve transportation. Simultaneously, maintaining and expanding transit helped rebuild a fragile economy; “the number one goal of the Recovery Act was actually to spend the money and stimulate demand,” said Zimmerman. The proposal also marked the beginning of the region’s enormously successful bike sharing system, which helped prepare for today’s network of separated bike lanes in DC and Arlington.
Washington, DC also showed foresight in the way it spent that portion of ARRA dollars allocated flexibly, according to the 2011 Smart Growth America analysis. Unlike any of the 50 states, DC chose to spend 100 percent of these funds either on road repair or non-motorized options. Maryland spent only 1 percent of this money on new highway capacity, while 91 percent went to highway system preservation. Virginia, by contrast, chose to spend 51 percent of the money on new highway capacity.
A difficult time sparked opportunity, although the federal government and some state decisions limited it. However, the DC region seized the chance and began the improvements that helped spur a Renaissance in biking and walking in the following decade. Still, this was hampered when Metrorail, following years of under funding, faced a series of accidents, delays, and frustration that led to a downturn in its use. Although emergency funding slowly reversed this situation, wise preventative maintenance could have helped. Maintenance, that is, should be a key part of regional plans moving forward.
Replicating Past Success
Overall, the DC region used a difficult situation to maintain and expand its transit systems and build biking infrastructure during the 2010 Recession. We are yet again facing another crisis, but the opportunity for clear skies may also be open. The region is already taking advantage of the shutdown to increase work on some transit projects, notably, “to massively accelerate timeline phase two for the Silver Line,” the newest arm of Metrorail, said Davis. While now is clearly not the time to begin new projects, taking advantage of empty roads and limited transit schedules to finish projects already underway helps to prepare for a post-pandemic future.
Cutting public transit now will have repercussions for the future. During the recovery from the Great Recession, the DC region was able to bounce back relatively quickly partly due to its foresight in keeping transit going, and even improving it. History might repeat itself. “We will recover from this,” said Davis, and transit will be the lifeblood of the region once again. Otherwise, the roadways will be severely congested and the economy will suffer. “You simply cannot move the number of people that we need” without transit.