Western states' transportation spending reveals their priorities

  • Bicyclist at the Golden Gate Bridge.

    Travis Pacheco, iStock
  • Light-rail sign in Denver.

    Brian Balster, iStock

With President Obama authorizing $105 billion for transportation spending this July, you might wonder: Just how does that federal dough get spent? Turns out about 80 percent is funneled into highways. Given the West's size and far-apart cities, you might also expect this road-centricity to be more pronounced here, with spending on public transit and pedestrian and bicycling infrastructure below the national average. That's not the case, but the differences in the spending of state and federal transport dollars between Western states do say quite a bit about their priorities.

21: Average percent of transportation budget that Western states spend on transit projects; the national average is 20 percent.

3: Percent of transportation dollars Wyoming plans for transit projects between 2011 and 2014.

44: Percent of transportation money Colorado plans to use for transit projects, including rail facilities for the Denver Metro area, between 2008 and 2013.

4: Percent below the national average that Western states spend on bridge and road maintenance.

2.1: The average percent of transportation dollars Western states put toward bicycle and pedestrian projects; the national average is 2 percent.

5: Percent of Oregon's planned transportation-fund spending designated for bicycle and pedestrian projects between 2010 and 2013.

1: Percent of Utah's planned spending that is for bicycle and pedestrian projects between 2011 and 2014.

5.6: Linear miles of bike lanes, multi-use paths and single bike routes per square mile of city surface in San Francisco, Calif. -- 6th safest out of 51 cities to ride a bike in.

1.2: Linear miles of bike facilities per square mile of city surface in Las Vegas, Nev. -- 46th safest out of 51 cities to ride a bike in.

Sources: Tri-state Transportation Campaign: Tracking State Transportation Dollars, Analysis of Statewide Transportation Improvement Programs; Alliance for Biking and Walking 2012 Benchmarking Report.

Jim Vance
Jim Vance
Aug 29, 2012 08:12 PM
No surprise here -- the Federal-Aid Highway program was designed to build a network of good roads from its inception in 1916 with US funding at >50% levels to leverage State matching funds so long as the states established highway departments that would plan and oversee construction and maintenance in accordance with Federal standards. The widespread construction programs of the prewar era during the Great Depression to establish the basic national system of paved roads was boosted greatly during the postwar era of metropolitan expansion with the Interstate highway program and the wave of suburbanization and regional population shifts among various parts of the country.

The institutional legacy of the past 75 years is dominated on the public sector side by highway engineering and construction-oriented professionals who continue to view new highway construction as preferable objectives, and who consistently underassess the potential development effects in gaining environmental approvals. This is largely because the legacy private-sector development and construction industry interests hold great power and influence in the political arenas, and it is those in positions of political authority who both appoint the leadership of the engineering institutions AND benefit greatly from financial largesse from those industry sources through campaign contributions and support. In conjunction with the longstanding road construction programs throughout the US, a widespread development industry market has evolved in every locale where the insight and ability of some deep insiders to acquire well-placed land parcels in advance of some new-alignment road project consistently enables those persons and groups to gain large profits from the subsequent sale or syndication of those properties in successive stages of a road's approval and construction.

It is that specific aspect of the institutional environment across America (and particularly in the West) which dominates the decision process in every state about how and on what projects available transportation funds should be spent. Bicycles, pedestrians and transit will always get short shrift so long as the basic corrupt nature of that hidden relationship remains unchanged.