I am not one to automatically reject contrarian views--this blog is, in large part, a collection of contrarian musings and polemics. But recent calls to disinvest or abandon the highway trust fund, and federal funding of transportation, in general (here and here), are a bit too cheeky for their own good, and end up parroting the same confused, pseudo-libertarian policies that many urbanist commentators eagerly embrace. The basic argument is that federal gas taxes, and federal transportation spending generally, is perversely geared towards the irresponsible growth of fiscally unsustainable transport systems (primarily through sprawl encouraging highway expansions). The proposed solution is to get the federal government out of the transportation policy and taxation business, in general, and decentralize such decision making to states and local government because they know best how to prioritize projects and are also more likely to give better support to bicycle and pedestrian advocates.
There are quite a few issues here but I want to highlight two issues that immediately jumped out to me: the invocation of "subsidiarity", by calling upon the ghost of Jane Jacobs even, and how such views always flirt with the "local trap"; second, such arguments show an ignorance of the role the federal government has historically played and currently influences, guides, and legitimizes urban and regional planning.
The Everpresent Local Trap
Fiscal sustainability aside (this is an apt observation and there is desperate need for budgetary reform), the notion that states and local municipalities should be responsible for funding and prioritizing projects because they happen to "know better" what their needs are fetishizes scale. In a now-classic piece, Mark Purcell talks about the dangers of professing essentialist political or moral qualities to scale.
The first issue with such arguments of radical decentralization and "local" control is the hard task of defining what is "local" in a rigorous way. So you decentralize transport funding to the state level, is it now the job of the state to play the role the federal government currently does and add a variety of strings and restrictions to access to that money, thus dictating what priorities "local" governments should have in regards to their own growth? Is the local now the state? The region? The county? The municipality? Not that such definitions matter too much, the federal government dictates at what scales funding and planning is issued to in different ways and state governments would conceivably do the same, but a more radical conception of local control challenges the notion of state control over these priorities. In other words, I am curious, what makes you think the state, as opposed to federal or even local level is an appropriate scale of such policy?
A second issue arises around the sloppy essentialism of calls for local control. By essentialism, I mean the assumption that "local" control is somehow more efficient, just, or effective than federal control of such funding. For example, the idea that bike and ped activists stand to gain from the decentralization of such control is not supported by evidence, but on the idea that somehow state legislatures are somehow more rational than federal executive offices or congress. While it is not hard to be a more functional institution than congress right now, the glee with which some state governments willingly let themselves be captured by interested parties (in particular fracking interests, some stories here and here).
Additionally, such fetishized notions of scale ignore the violent histories that come to actually define the "local" in many areas. From the genocide of indigenous peoples to the rise of sundown towns, de jure and de facto segregation, discriminatory housing policy, and environmental racism, the definition of place and the construction of the local is often built upon systemic violence and exclusion. This is not to say that all calls for decentralized control will inevitably descend into parochialism, but to not recognize the very real violent history of claims of "local" control and "states' rights", especially around issues of urban and regional planning, is too cavalier in dismissing history and all-too-current issues of cries for "local" control as excuses for the exclusion of the poor, persons of color, and queer folks.
The Feds and "mandates" to plan
My second critique of such calls of radical decentralization of transport funding authority is that such calls either ignore or fundamentally misread the importance of the federal government in the history of urban and regional planning. Succinctly, we would not have wide-ranging planning, or conceivably even a field/profession of urban planning, without the federal government. The federal government's role in this rests in two fields: mandating planning in exchange for funding; and providing support for planning to municipalities through technical assistance and regulatory assistance.
Yes, the federal government may have incorporated terrible incentives in their transportation funding schemes, but the federal government also required that in order for states and municipalities to gain access to such funding that they must show explicitly what they plan on doing with such funding by creating plans. Even within the context of the mandate to plan the federal government was, and remains, quite sensitive to local priorities as set forth by plans. Urbanists love to decry the terrible abuses of mid-20th century urban renewal as examples of federal overreach and modernistic overzealousness while conveniently forgetting that actual urban renewal plans and implementation were all determined at the local scale. What the federal government did have a huge influence over in these schemes is that they actually required plans, in the first place, as opposed to simply handing over pots of money to development corporations or not participate in urban development at all.
This is an incredibly common thread in US urban planning history. The federal government has a pot of money that is available for some issue and local and state governments ask for funding and, in turn, the federal government requires that these municipalities have a plan so that the federal government knows what they will do with the money. If not directly linked to available funding, federal regulations have also required states and municipalities to provide a variety of reports and plans in response to the violation of federal regulations. Of course, the EPA and the Clean Water and Air acts are probably the best examples of such regulation spurring further monitoring and planning at the local and state level. In fact, one could argue that the entire field of environmental planning would not currently exist were it not for such legislation.
It also goes without saying that pretty much any attention to racial, gender, national origin, or sexual orientation discrimination in housing and education is almost entirely due to the federal government. As ineffective as it may be in meeting its goals, HUD and the courts have been central to the opening up of housing markets to marginalized groups and leading arguments for expanding the supply of affordable housing and housing, in general. Again, history and current events, lead us to the conclusion that decoupling major infrastructure funding from federal oversight increases the likelihood of local regulatory capture, removes many anti-discrimination protections including social and environmental impact assessments, and continued mandates to plan and strengthen the legitimacy of urban and regional planning as essential public services.
What is the goal here?
Finally, I would ask such proponents of radical decentralization just what exactly are there goals and to ask more explicitly how decentralization actually addresses them? If fiscal sustainability of state DOTs is the goal, then decentralization may be one of many potential policy responses, but if you are concerned about getting people out of their cars, growth control, increased use of active transportation etc. then I am hardpressed to see how decentralization at all helps. It is telling that the greatest encouragement of regional planning in the past 60 years has not been the growing popularity of cities like Portland that brag about their urban growth boundaries, but the Sustainable Communities Initiative lead by HUD, EPA, and DOT to, again, mandate that regions plan collectively for the issues facing them in the future. This grant, which incidentally METRO got rejected for twice due to its inability or unwillingness to seriously tackle the issue of fair housing in the region, has the potential to steer regional development in many areas in positive ways unimaginable a decade ago. If states or local municipalities had such interest in encouraging such policies, then they would have done so long ago. Let's leave the dangerous essentialism of local control behind us and think about better ways to reform and work within a system of federalism that has actually been pretty effective at institutionalizing planning and moving us forward.