The world of transportation may be changing rapidly, but the world of transportation funding certainly is not. Like a giant ship turning around very slowly, we still are loaded down with the baggage of thinking from 70 years ago. Sometimes it’s just too easy to point out the hypocrisy, but it still needs to be done.

Today’s example comes from the Kansas City metro area.

Last fall, a small group of residents in downtown Kansas City voted to fund a Transportation Development District (TDD) with the purpose of funding the construction and operations of a two-mile long streetcar line downtown.

A TDD is essentially one of a series of self-taxing districts, where people agree to raise sales and/or property taxes for a specific purpose. In this case, it will fund a $100 million line, which will be the first new rail transit in Kansas City since the streetcars were torn out in the 1950’s.

The vote comes after decades of heart-wrenching debates and votes regarding rail transit in the city. After multiple citywide votes were shot down by voters for a much more expansive system, rail promoters chose to focus instead on a small, starter line, funded directly by the people it serves and most benefits.

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An illustration of what the streetcar could look like in downtown, KC. Image created by HDR, Inc.

I’m glad for KC, and ecstatic to see this move forward and be operational by 2015. And in an even smarter move, the streetcar line will be free. That decision should have a great impact on its use, and help begin to wean people off the notion of easy motoring and free parking in the heart of the city.

I’d also be remiss if I didn’t mention that the voter-approved plan is essentially what the Urban Society suggested as an approach back in 2007. At the time, city leaders chose to put yet another expansive and expensive plan before the voters. It was predictably shot down.

As one of the former Board Members of the Urban Society, it’s nice to occasionally say, we told you so.

When considering plans for the core of the city, City leaders would do well to listen to those most passionate about it, instead of suburban voices with competing interests. Understand your market and your customers, like any savvy business does. But that’s a story for another day.

The interesting thing to ponder is what this effort tells us about the future of transportation funding, versus the current state.

To contrast the streetcar funding, about ten years ago, the Missouri Department of Transportation started a project to rebuild the infamous Grandview Triangle intersection, which is the intersection of Interstates 435, 470 and US 71. The stated purpose of the project was to reduce congestion for suburban commuters. In essence it would reduce travel times by about a minute at rush hour, for a cost of $200 million in 2001 dollars.

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Grandview Triangle Intersection

Like all highway projects, it was chosen, funded and built with no public vote. The voters of the entire state of Missouri, and in fact the entire United States were the primary funders of the project. Again, the project was entirely for the benefit of suburban commuters, since the intersection had no congestion outside of at most 10 hours per week.

This is the cognitive dissonance that says one group of people must vote for and fund their own lifestyle choices (urbanites who use transit); while another group gets their lifestyle choices funded by everyone.

I’m actually not at all opposed to the approach used for the streetcar line. In fact, I think that it’s a much fairer way to go about funding major transportation projects that require public dollars.

I simply wonder: why don’t we do this for every major project? The primary recipients of our largesse for the Grandview Triangle are people who live within about a ten-mile radius of it. What if they had to fund its rebuilding? Would those voters have chosen to raise their own taxes for this one intersection?

The KC streetcar plan is a great start for the city, and I predict in no time it will lead to further expansions. The simple, logical approach is what promoters of the core have wanted for many years.

My hope is that the project is inspiration to take a new look at the entire model for transportation funding. I’m not opposed to someone’s choice to live in the suburbs and drive everywhere. But I don’t want to pay for their choice, any more than they want to pay for the construction of the transit system I want to use. Until we devise a fairer method for funding infrastructure, that puts the costs squarely with the users, we’ll continue to fight the same battles over and over. And the cognitive dissonance will only get louder.







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6 Responses to Cognitive Dissonance in Transportation Funding

  1. [...] It’s So Much Easier to Get Highways Funded Than Transit (New Urbanism) [...]

  2. William Furr says:

    I remember back when Kansas City had everything shiny and new.

    That is an amazing contrast. What do you think about ending the federal surface transportation program entirely and devolving transportation funding to the states? That’s a conservative proposal that made the rounds last week, and hits right at one of those weird spots where urbanists and Republicans actually have something in common.

  3. Kevin Klinkenberg says:

    Thanks, William. I think it’s absolutely a legitimate policy debate to ask: why do we have the Federal government involved in funding so much transportation that is local in nature. Not only does federal and state money often fund the construction of local arterial roads (which are often very over-designed), it also funds freeway projects that are entirely about capacity for local trips, not national trips.
    Chuck Marohn, over at Strong Towns has written about this as well, and I think it’s an area of common ground with urbanists, absolutely. I’d favor the federal government getting out of funding any local projects, and focusing their efforts on true interstate transportation for road, rail, air and water. In that world, we might find more federal money available for a better rail network, for example.

  4. Ben says:

    The next big project in KC is to rebuild the 435/34/k-10 area, on the southwest corner of the metro area. It’s going to cost at least $600 million, but is just a matter of course to the Kansas DOT and taxpayers. One of the major arguments for it is a new multimodal facility being built on the far southern edge of existing development. So projects that benefit citizens are paid for by neighbors only and extremely controversial, while huge trucking route rebuilds are paid for by the whole state (and country), without a second thought?

  5. D Fantastic says:

    The KC Streetcar does use federal money, around $18M, so similar to the triangle project the feds actually do have say over what gets built where. very few if any projects are w/o fed involvement.

  6. The KC Streetcar project did get $17.1M in locally programmed Fed money: $16M from the Surface Transportation Program, and $1.1 from the Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality Program. These didn’t impact the vision or direction of the plan, since this was in place before these funds were secured. In fact, these were secured when we learned we were not awarded a TIGER grant.

    The only material impact is that the project now has some additional oversight as required by FTA on any project that has Federal money involved.

    Since these were locally programmed and merit based, and didn’t materially change the direction of the project, I think they’re still within the spirit of this discussion.

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