Tracking Transportation Funds
Portland’s TriMet opened its MAX Green Line this September. Photo by sam_churchill.

Portland’s TriMet opened its MAX Green Line this September. Photo by sam_churchill.

The stimulus package, known formally as the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, has raised hopes but also concerns about its potential effects on sustainable transportation. Will enough funds be allocated to transportation and energy projects? And will it spark effective progress in the long term? The recently re-launched Recovery.gov may provide answers to some of these questions and give deeper insight into how stimulus money is being used for sustainability efforts.

The government-run site hosts innovative search features including an interactive U.S. map that lets you pinpoint (based on your zip code) local stimulus projects with specific fund amounts and project descriptions. Another feature on the home page titled “Data, Data and More Data” allows you to search by state, government agency and monetary amount.

This map, for example, shows Department of Transportation projects in Illinois. Scroll to the Chicago area and you can find a blue dot representing the Chicago Transit Authority (yes, finding the right dot takes some patience.) Clicking it will reveal that CTA plans to spend almost $200 million to purchase buses and renovate their subway system. Another $49 million will go to infrastructure renovations.

Likewise, a search for transportation projects in Oregon shows that Portland’s TriMet system is budgeting over $38 million for construction and renovations and $32 million for new rail cars.

The District of Columbia’s Department of Transportation, however, plans to allocate most of its $100 million budget towards street and building renovations (see map here).

Browsing these figures does reveal some trends. Major urban areas are certainly allocating big funds to transportation, but much of it is dedicated to renovating or maintaining existing structures and roadways. Very little, if at all, is expressly budgeted to innovative projects such as bike paths or bus-only lanes.

These tepid results seem reminiscent of the short-term benefits of the Cash for Clunkers program. TheCityFix reported recently that this program, despite its gesture towards an economically viable and sustainable car culture, would not offset carbon emissions in the long run (see related Washington Post op-ed here.) Will Recovery funds for mass transit systems fall short in providing concrete and enduring progress for sustainability?

Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood had mixed words on this topic in a speech at the Center for National Policy in July. LaHood mentioned that funding for intermodal transportation was a priority for Recovery Act discretionary spending. However, he failed to explain how the Department of Transportation would balance quick recovery fixes (short-term construction projects) with long-term solutions (a sustainable commuter system).

PBS analyzed this very question in a report on stimulus funding. It was found that a number of factors hinder public transit projects in cities and states across the country. Among them: a downturn in revenue from state sales tax; federal guidelines favoring increased road density and gas consumption; and the dominance of politically motivated pork barrel spending.

Regardless of the barriers impeding sustainable transit projects, there are glimmers of hope. The American Public Transportation Association recently compiled a list of sustainable Recovery projects: West Palm Beach’s Palm Tran is purchasing 10 hybrid buses, 15 diesel buses and 4 alternative fuel trolleys; Phoenix’s Regional Public Transportation Authority will use $15 million for bus rapid transit projects; D.C.’s WMATA is buying 45 new hybrid-electric buses.

As Recovery.gov expands it will be interesting to observe how these funds are allocated across the country. Right now, many transit organizations including the WMATA have yet to disclose specific projects on the site, despite having done so on their own pages (take a look at WMATA’s stimulus distribution). This might change in the coming weeks: Mid-October is the first quarterly deadline for Recovery Act recipients to disclose the use of their funds.

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