Travelers and taxpayers both lose as Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao caved in to Maryland’s Republican Governor Larry Hogan and Democratic Congressional delegation by approving federal funding for the Purple Line. As Antiplanner readers know, the state’s own transportation analysis found that the Purple Line will dramatically increase congestion in Montgomery County suburbs of Washington DC, while the $5.6 billion cost represents exactly $5.6 billion that could have been spent to better effect on just about anything else: buses, roads, schools, or health care, to name a few things.
Administration officials justified the decision by saying that the project was too far along to cancel and the planned public-private partnership was something that President Trump wants to encourage. But, in this case at least, the public-private partnership does not save any money or produce any better service; it is merely a way of avoiding debt limits because the debt from the project will be on the books of the private partner, not the public agency.
As for being too far along to stop, every project on FTA’s New Starts and Small Starts list has already received some federal money for engineering and design work. The Department of Transportation recently told Durham to go ahead with engineering work on its light-rail project, so it too will presumably reach the point where it is “too far along” to stop.
The Trump administration’s position was that only projects that had signed full-funding grant agreements were too far long. Yet the administration funded the CalTrains electrification project; an Obama official had signed the grant agreement for that project just days before taking a job with one of the project contractors, but when Secretary Chao agreed to review that decision, Senate Democrats threatened to hold up every presidential nomination unless she let the money go.
The Purple Line didn’t have the excuse of already having a grant agreement, nor were Democrats able to hold anything hostage to get the funds. Instead, in this case, the pressure came from Maryland’s Republican Governor who had won his election by campaigning against the Purple Line and other wasteful projects. He might have felt that a turnaround was politically advantageous to him, but he could have endorsed the project and then quietly let Chao kill it. Instead, he lobbied her intensively to get the money.
Where does it end? Will the administration fund light-rail projects in Minneapolis, Phoenix, and Seattle? Streetcars in Ft. Lauderdale, Los Angeles, and Tempe? Commuter trains to Larkspur, California and Orlando Airport? None of these projects make sense from a transportation or economic point of view; they are just ways for local governments to get “their share” of a federal pork-barrel fund. But they all have powerful defenders, especially among those who expect to profit from building $50 million a mile streetcar lines or $150 million a mile light-rail lines.
The federal transit capital grant program is a classic case of a system that concentrates the benefits on a few (mainly rail contractors) and spreads the costs over many, namely 120 million federal taxpayers. Naturally, the few lobby intensively while the many, for the most part, ignore the waste. President Trump promised to change the way Washington does business. So far, for transportation at least, he hasn’t made those changes.