The transportation bill that just passed the Senate is mostly about keeping current funding flowing to our highway and transit systems, but there are a few twists. One of the lesser-known components of the bill is a change whereby the states get to keep more of the most flexible transportation funding they receive and share fewer of these dollars with local areas in their state. Akin to the popular and well-established Community Development Block Grant Program and its "entitlement communities,” the federal surface transportation law has passed through 62.5 percent of all STP funding to local areas since 1991, with urbanized areas of 200,000 or more people receiving their population share of these funds by formula. Nearly 200 such areas throughout the nation – our biggest metropolitan economies that produce most of the nation’s goods and services – will receive a smaller share of these transportation “block grant” resources under what the Senate bill calls the Transportation Mobility Program, a renaming of the Surface Transportation Program. To most people, this change doesn’t seem like much, but to local areas, it means that their local decision-makers will now control an even smaller share of the funds that the federal government sends back to us. And, there is growing evidence that local decision-makers are getting more bang for their buck than state transportation bureaucrats, given the success local officials are having in developing alternative transportation systems, encouraging more efficient development near transit stations and motivating local taxpayers to support higher fees and taxes for these improvements, as other levels of government run from raising additional taxes.
And, we see that state governments are growing more confrontational and political, as local decision-makers continue to prove themselves to be effective and responsive in promoting community development and other objectives. Local officials simply don’t have the time or inclination to indulge the fervor and ideology that now plagues our political debates. Certainly, their close proximity to the public and their problems forces them to act and find solutions, which I believe today makes them the dominant actors in our political system. These achievements stem from their desire to affect change for their people and communities, as opposed to advancing a political agenda.
A recent commercial during the Super Bowl by The Mayors Coalition Against Illegal Guns made this point clearly. Two mayors, New York’s Mayor Bloomberg and Boston’s Mayor Menino, are from different parties, different regions and in many ways are competitors with each other for new jobs and business investment. Yet, here they are united by their shared goal of improving the safety of their communities, advocating for modest but important improvements in federal gun safety laws. Their message promoted by the organization does not derive from a political agenda or party platform, and does not indulge the usual 2nd amendment, constitutional debate. These are simply mayors confronting problems hurting their people and their communities and seeking reasonable remedies to alleviate it. This is one of many examples where mayors and other local elected officials have come together to protect and improve their cities.
The rationality of these politicians makes them the best stewards for our country. If mayors and other local officials were handed the political reigns of this country—it is certain we would be much better off. In contrast, our federal and state governments seem most interested in passing the buck down to local officials, cutting resources but passing along more responsibilities to localities.
Why does federal policy look the other way on the performance of our state governments and continue to send money to them and pretend they are solving problems? The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) provided large sums of money to state governments to create jobs and stimulate the economy. As a recent Albemarle County official told me and others in a session on the impacts of ARRA funding, it was reported that the Commonwealth of Virginia held most of their ARRA funds they received from the federal government. In enacting these funds, Congress again assumed or believed that the states would pass these dollars down to worthy projects in local communities. As it turns out, the only ARRA money the County of Albemarle received was from the Energy Efficiency and Conservation Block Grant, because its formula directed dollars directly to cities and counties, much like CDBG funding is allocated.
Given all we know about losing funding inside the state’s treasury and inside its agencies, isn’t it time to simply direct more federal funds to cities, counties and their local areas so we can all benefit from smart local decisions investing in our future? The uncertainty about the redistribution of funds through the state is convincing more of the public that nothing comes from the expenditure of federal resources on these programs. Let’s start by making sure the final federal transportation bill restores local area funding so more dollars and more investment decisions will be made locally.
Guest Contributor: Kate McCarty