The Antiplanner: Federal Funding and Transportation Planning

Should Congress require cities and states to do transportation planning in order to be eligible for federal transportation funds? Under current law, states and metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs) are required to do two kinds of plans: long-range transportation plans that look ahead for about 20 years, and transportation-improvement plans (TIPs) that focus on projects that are going to be funded or partly funded in the next year or two.

The Antiplanner has always believed that short-term, mission-specific planning is a necessary part of any program or activity. We plan our days, school teachers plan their lessons, and highway departments plan road maintenance and bridge construction. So I don’t have a lot of objections to TIPs, though I think the legal requirement is unnecessary — it’s going to happen whether the law requires it or not.

But the Antiplanner has always objected to long-range planning. Two years ago, I sat down and read more than 70 long-range metropolitan transportation plans (and if you don’t think that was painful, try it sometime). I found that they all failed to do a good job of setting goals, developing alternative ways of meeting those goals, and fairly evaluating those alternatives.

Heck, most of them didn’t consider any alternatives at all. One of the few that considered anything more than a “do nothing” alternative was later proven to have cooked the books to make the planners’ preconceived ideas appear to make sense. Yet taxpayers are spending something like $1 billion a year to produce these mountains of garbage, which Congress requires be revised every five years.

This law should be called the Urban Planners’ Full-Employment Act. Except for jobs for planners, it is producing nothing of value and much harm. Wait a minute, scratch that part about “except for jobs for planners.”

But, you may say, the mere fact that all the long-range transportation plans I’ve reviewed have been junk doesn’t prove that there is something wrong with the idea of long-range transportation planning. If only the plans were done right, they would be very useful, right?

Wrong. There are two fundamental flaws to the very idea of long-range planning. First, no one knows what the world will be like in 20 years. Twenty years ago, hardly anyone had heard of the internet, the World Wide Web didn’t exist, and on-line ordering of everything from groceries to log homes seemed as distant a dream as driverless cars. Since we can’t know the future, too many planners plan for the past, which is one reason why we see so many cities wanting to build streetcars and other totally obsolete forms of transportation.

Anyone who thinks about the future — which means just about everyone — has to deal with uncertainty. Most of us try to be flexible: if the situation changes, we change our plans. But governments have a hard time being flexible because as soon as they write a plan, special-interest groups that benefit from that plan begin to conspire to keep the plan going even if it turns out to be a disaster. Since the benefits are concentrated and the costs shared among many, those interest groups usually prevail.

As a result, long-range plans lead states and metro areas into disaster because, once a plan that is certain to be wrong is written, they can’t change it. For example (as I previously detailed), Sacramento’s 2006 transportation plan admitted (on page 3) that the plans written “during the past 25 years have not worked out.” So what did the new plan propose? More of the same.

But if such plans are so bad, why does Congress require them? The ostensible reason for requiring such plans is that Congress wants to insure that taxpayer money is being effectively spent. But we can do a better job of that by providing state and local agencies with incentives to spend the money properly. For example, if transportation is about mobility, as the Antiplanner believes, then funds can be distributed according to how much mobility each state achieves. This will give states incentives to invest their shares of funds on things that most enhance mobility.

Another reason for the planning requirement was given by former NRDC lawyer and current law professor David Schoenbrod in his 1995 book,Power Without Responsibility. Rather than make the hard decisions itself, observed Schoenbrod, Congress would delegate responsibility to planners (or other bureaucrats) and let them take the heat for the resulting disasters.

Another answer is that the negative effects of long-range plans are so insidious that few know to blame them on the plans. Congestion has quintupled in the past 25 years, so we need a new plan! When in fact, in many places, the congestion has quintupled (or worse) because of, not in spite of, past plans.

Long-range transportation planning does not work and cannot work. Instead of requiring such planning, Congress should do taxpayers and travelers a favor and forbid it. At the very least, all planning requirements should be eliminated from transportation laws.