How Government Largesse Obstructs Progress: NMA E-Newsletter #372

It’s no secret the federal government can be very generous with taxpayer money, providing grants for everything from volcano hazard monitoring to Zika virus research. But it always seems to come with strings attached.

For example, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration awards hundreds of millions annually to the states to conduct “selective traffic enforcement programs.” These campaigns typically involve paying police overtime to conduct speed traps, man DUI roadblocks or enforce whatever the violation du jour happens to be. The grants that fund the enforcement contain specific police performance requirements (couched in terms like “number of contacts per hour”) which amount to de facto ticket quotas. If a police department fails to meet the quota it likely won’t receive similar grant money in the future.

Another famous example involves the federal push to lower the BAC limit from .10 to .08. For this to happen nationwide each state had to pass a law to implement the lower enforcement limit. President Clinton offered extra highway funding for states to pass laws quickly, but it wasn’t enough. Many states dragged their heels, and Congress threatened to withhold highway funding until they passed the law.

A more localized example comes from a member who reports that his city was set to get a $1.5 million federal grant to fix a troublesome intersection where a highway crossed a train station exit/entrance. To qualify for the grant, the city had to pledge to make that section of highway friendly to bicyclists, requiring them to not only fix the sidewalk and some traffic signals, but also to put in a divided bicycle lane.

Opposition to the plan to add the bike lane noted that there were a small number of bicycles at the transit station at any given time and questioned the value of adding a bike lane to a road that was only four blocks long. To add fuel to the opposition fire, the intersection that needed fixing was a federal, not city, product.

The city council was stuck between a rock and a hard place. The intersection desperately needed to be upgraded, but they couldn’t afford to make the repairs without the federal grant money that came with the bike lane mandate. Many on the council agreed that the lane was pointless but a necessary cost of getting federal (read: taxpayer) money for a desperately needed public project.

The impasse resulted in a dead-on-arrival project. Federal assistance was lost when demands for adding a bike lane were rejected. The city was left with an unsafe intersection and no means to fix it. Lose – Lose.

So, what’s the moral of the story? First, governing, even at the local level, is complex and full of compromises. Second, federal involvement can make it even more difficult, especially when mandating unnecessary, Vision Zero-inspired interventions that only serve to obstruct progress and drive up costs.

It reminds us of the comments from a City of Philadelphia traffic engineer we published in a recent issue of Driving Freedoms. He admitted that the city installs bike lanes on city streets not because there are lots of bicyclists but “to curb aggressive driving and slow driving speed.” Talk about obstruction.

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