Mobility, and livability, is about more than roads and cars
The US Department of Transportation has announced a third round of its TIGER grant program. Critics of TIGER, like CEI's Marc Scribner, are again bashing the program, this time because it focuses on "livability" instead of exclusively pushing driving.
To Scribner, driving everywhere is what real Americans want, while anyone who prefers the ability to walk to stores and parks is just following a "fad" that's best mocked with the tired old anti-urban tropes like "schlepping organic groceries" and "yuppies slumming in 1980s New York."
He criticizes TIGER for not giving more money to car infrastructure even though it got more funding than any other mode, and calls past TIGER projects "duds" just because they don't meet his personal goals while achieving just what the cities and states, and people living there, had hoped. Who's pushing a lifestyle now?
Scribner's first criticism is that not enough money is going to cars, the mode he wants to put above all. He writes, "When TIGER II grants were announced, only a third of funding went to road projects. 'Livability,' you see, really means, 'go to hell, drivers!'"
If getting one third of transportation money is being told to go to hell, cyclists would love to be asked to go there.
While he is correct that roads only got 29% of the money, what he doesn't mention is that it got more than any other mode, which hardly sounds like the anti-car agenda he makes it out to be. Roads received 29 percent of TIGER II funding, while 26 percent went to transit, 20 percent to rail, 16 percent to ports, four percent to bicycle and pedestrian projects, and five percent for planning grants.
In TIGER I, the three largest projects were freight rail projects. Perhaps Scibner thinks moving freight more efficiently is "anti-mobility."
And some projects that aren't labelled as "road" projects will actually improve driving. For example, the CREATE project in Chicago, which received money in TIGER I, lists "reducing motorist delay due to rail conflict at grade crossings" as one of their top goals.
Thus, it's laughable to state that roads and drivers are being ignored, but for Scribner getting anything less than 100% of the money is to be ignored. State and local DOTs see it differently. In the first round of TIGER funding, only 57% of the money applied for was for roads.
Scribner makes much of the fact that some modes of transportation are used by a small group. Only 5.5% of commuters in Salt Lake City, which won money for a streetcar, use transit. Only 0.3% of commuters bike commute in Fayettville, AR, which won a grant for a 36-mile bike trail.
But this only proves that we've done a lousy job of creating choices. We built entire regions of our country around driving, built roads designed to maximize driver speed, didn't bother with sidewalks or creating roads that invited cyclists, created a fractured and slow transit system and look, now no one takes transit or walks or bikes. That no one uses a non-existent option is not evidence that the option shouldn't exist.
Scribner's other criticism is that the process uses livability as a standard for making grants. In his usual self-contradictory style, he frequently refers to "livability" as vague and meaningless, while simultaneously linking to a USDOT definition of the term.
"We want to base our decisions on how much transit helps the environment, how much it improves development opportunities and how it makes our communities better places to live."
(That same link is tied to the words "all sorts of silly investments" even though the author at the link only worries that it will cause silly investments. There is no evidence of such investments. One person's worries hardly constitutes fact.)
USDOT even has a detailed website that more clearly defines what livability means.
And there's a technical reason why livability matters for these grants. In TIGER II, HUD kicked in $40 million to encourage transit-oriented development (one part of livability according to DOT's definition).
Scribner refers to the Razorback Greenway and Salt Lake City Streetcar as "duds" which, considering that neither has finished construction yet, is a bit premature. To Scribner, even if both projects meet or exceed the goals outlined in their TIGER grant applications they'll be duds because they don't meet his goals. It's like calling the Apollo program a dud because it didn't cure cancer.
But $15 million for a 36 mile transportation project compares pretty favorably to something like the 18-mile, $2.566 billion Intercounty Connector. The Greenway will only need 321 users per day to match the user/dollar ratio of the ICC.
Luckily, USDOT is moving away from the windshield perspective of Marc Scribner, and TIGER III has the potential to be a real success, as long as you don't define success only in terms of moving cars.
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