Today, I came across this great article from the site Next American City.
The article basically discusses the problem with federal money being distributed to state governments:
Indeed, the strength of state governments in making transportation decisions is one of the primary culprits for the highway-dependent state of the American landscape, in addition to the federal urban renewal policies and Interstate Highway legislation that are more typically singled out for blame. This fact comes to the serious detriment of metropolitan areas, which lack the fiscal ability and legal right to make full decisions about their transportation futures.
Why does this occur?
That’s because the politics of almost every state are dominated by rural and suburban constituents, or, in other words: car drivers. The urban transit users, pedestrians, and bike riders are typically at the back of the pack when it comes to representation.
The author of the article, Yonah Freemark, calls on Washington to "stem that state power". However, he offers no alternative way for distributing federal money. He seems to be in favor of the Feds having more power in distributing the money.
This issue is also covering in this blog.
I agree with Mr. Freemark: urban areas should have far more power. Money should not even be funneled in to the Feds in the first place; more tax money should be staying within localities. The amount of money each locality has would be based on the amount of economic activity occurring in each given metro area. In the case of money being distributed from a Federal level, it should work the same way: the more valuable the metro area to the economy, the more money it gets.
However, since I am talking about this issue purely from a transportation standpoint, I can see many problems with money being distributed in this manner. Since everything is so road and highway oriented, how could anyone guarantee all the money would not just be used for building new highways?
One solution could be the idea of Federal matching of funds: the more money localities would contribute to non-road projects, the more money would be provided by the Feds for transportation.
Overall though, the main point:
The Feds can not just keep throwing money at states for whatever transportation projects they want. State governments will continue to prioritize road and highway projects because that is the popular thing to do in many jurisdictions (especially the rural ones).
Let the majority be represented. Give urban areas far more political power.
Update (5/8): Here is another blog that discusses this very issue. It suggests giving the power to MPO's (Metropolitan Planning Agencies). All metro areas with a population above 50,000 are required to have MPO's, so it makes sense to distribute federal money through these organizations. In Albuquerque, the MPO is MRCOG, and in Tucson the MPO is PAG.
These groups do a lot of regional transportation planning, so it makes a lot of sense to give these agencies more money, and power.
Update 5/12: Here is great article about the history of road funding. It discusses how the acceleration of the car based transportation system led to money being taken from local control and given over to state and federal control. This [PDF] is the longer article that this previously linked article was summarizing.
We MUST focus on getting our transportation money back to the local authorities. State leaders generally do not understand the idea of "sustainable transit". Metro regions do and they need the money now, more than ever, to invest in sustainable transportation options.