Sunday, April 21, 2013

Lessons in Local Transportation Finance

Last week I was fortunate enough to attend the American Planning Association Conference in Chicago. IL. I made it to nearly 10 sessions regarding transportation systems in our country and their future in American cities. Out of all the planners, engineers, think tanks and city workers that I saw present, no one was as real and poignant as Stephanie Pollack, Associate Director of the Dukakis Center of Urban and Regional Planning at Northeastern University. I heard Ms. Pollack speak at a session titled "The New Role of Local Transportation Funding," where I expected a few consultants and policy directors to tell us about the importance of sales taxes, property taxes, TIFs and special assessment fees. Out of the four presenters, three did exactly that. Ms. Pollack took a different approach. 

The days when cities received the bulk of funding for highway and transportation infrastructure from the federal government is no longer a reality. The role of local agencies' was to match bigger federal and state aid. Due to the tensions in Washington and the federal governments inability to raise the gas tax, local offices are taking funding into their own hands. Ms. Pollack was very honest and straightforward to the room full of planners she was preaching to, "The feds are not going to fund your new transit line if your existing one is in disrepair!" You could hear the chuckles around the room. People making eye contact, raising an eyebrow and nodding. It was probably not something many of the planners in the room had been told, but everyone knew she was right.

Ms. Pollack showed a map of all the transit systems with operating deficits. It was essentially a map of the US cities with transit lines. Maintenance costs were nearly as bad. She stated that capital costs had a $77 billion deficit nationwide. Ms. Pollack reiterated, nearly yelling, "You MUST have a financially stable transit system to get money." She went on to list 10 lessons she had learned from helping cities to raise money locally. The lessons included working with your state legislature, making a long term plan, using polls to find out exactly what citizens want, involving non-riders in the fight for funding, having a sense of humor, motivating voters, working with your allies and other transit projects and most importantly; if you lose the first time, just try again.

As I sat there, listening to Ms. Pollack educate a room of planners, I thought how much these lessons could help TriMet with some of their financial setbacks. Obviously they are going through a unique problem with their unions, but they too are struggling to ask the state for funding. It has come to “out of the box” solutions, and Ms. Pollack was inspiring to think that any city could rally to raise money and keep their system alive. I hope someone from Portland was in that room listening to the same presentation. 

**Thanks go out to Mike Armstrong for editing my work. Thank you, Mike. 


  1. Brenda, thanks for sharing. Did Ms. Pollack present any concrete examples of these "out of the box" solutions you mentioned? Coming from someone who plans a transit system in a suburban, low-density area with very limited political support for transit, it would be interesting to see if some of her suggestions could actually be used to gain more support for increased transit investment.

    It's also very interesting to note that this year marks the FIRST YEAR in 20 years that FTA has not allocated money for all small starts projects approved for project development. So yes, I agree with her when she says "the Feds are not going to fund your new transit line" whether or not the existing lines are in disrepair.

    1. Tom, I suppose "out of the box" may have been too big of a statement to make. What Ms. Pollack suggested wasn't necessarily out of the ordinary funding, it was just funding in a way most cities don't think about for transit. A lot of her examples had to do with raising sales taxes or a gas tax. Pretty standard but rarely done successfully.

      Her biggest point, as Mike mentioned below, is that cities need to be strategic on how and most importantly WHO they get in their corner. Local agencies seem to think that they need riders to support them, but those people already do! You want nonriders, car drivers! You also want allies; the Sierra Club or the NAACP should always be on transit's side. If they are not you are definitely doing something wrong! (Her words, not mine)

      You are definitely right on the funding for small starts, but her big push was State of Good Repair funding and the need to raise your own in order to get the feds to think you have your stuff together.

  2. The biggest things I took out of her speech regarding your comment Tom, is to strategize a way to get people who will never ride transit to vote for transit. Her lead example of this was the ad campaign in St. Louis along the lines of "Some of us use it, all of us need it." This focused on how the mobility of riders affects nonriders. If the in-home care nurse that was coming out to look after your mom can't get there after transit cuts, that has a real impact on you. St. Louis is not a low density suburb, but I think the strategy may be more valid because of this. She said flat out that in most places it will not succeed without some level of support from nonriders.

    Some of the other relevant points were on the use of humor and polling. Making the message more palatable and directed. Polling in particular gives you the numbers to take to legislators, town hall meetings etc. to provide evidence of constituent support that can emphasize the fact that the people that vote for them want transit.

    I haven't had much time to look through it, but looking at the example of StarMetro in Tallahassee for a way to plan routes for a decentralized area could be helpful.

  3. Brenda, I guess we made the same session there. I also thought this session was one of the best of all the ones that I attended.

    One of the things that goes along with Ms. Pollack's talk that was not said was be more conservative with your numbers. The most glaring example I can think of is Pierce County Transit in Tacoma where they needed a 6% annual increase in revenue to keep their existing system going and we all know how that worked out. Pierce County is hurting bad now because they just assumed that the good times would never end.

    Another important lesson is that systems need regular maintenance. Chicago has been shutting down entire sections of their network (Red Line south of the Loop is closing this year). You must budget for these eventualities and not expect someone to ride to your rescue.

    1. John, that is a very interesting comment on Chicago. You are right that the L needs a little TLC (that might be an understatement). What always surprises me about cities like Chicago, that have high maintenance costs on existing lines, is their ability to implement new lines and systems! Chicago just announced their new BRT line and I want to know more about where their funding will come from. Funny enough, the new line will be running parallel to the red line... coincidence?


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