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I was reading an article on transportation devolution, proposing handing financing and management down to the states.  This is not such a bad idea, at the right scale


The main problem with devolution is that you need federal oversight and coordination to deal with maintaining standards across the national highway systems.  About a third of the miles we travel in traffic are over 50 miles, after all, and over 75% of our freight is moved by truck over those roads. It would not do too have 50 different standards for road construction, planning and signage.


You need the full faith and credit of the US to manage this…

Except we already do have 50 different sets of highway standards.  The majority of road design, building and maintenance is done at the state and local level.  The national organizations and agencies, like the FHWA, AASHTO, ASHE, and Transportation Research Board, just serve as an advisory touchstone .  Moving form state to state, even on US highways and interstate highways, and I guarantee you will see differences in pavement, bridge, marking and drainage design.  Some of these difference are due to differences in geology and hydrology, but they are guided by state highway departments that change inexorably over state lines.

That’s not really what I am interested in, however.

There are two things that appeal to me about devolution.  One, the obvious one, is that I prefer more local government as more responsive to the needs of their people, and the second, less obvious one, Is that I consider transportation to be a much more local thing than we typically think of when the talking heads discuss policy and other bone dry pursuits.  While devolution may not make sense for the expensive and extensive road and rail networks of the United States, it makes perfectly good sense for walking, biking and transit infrastructure.  Even though transit is more expensive than traffic per mile of route, it opens up opportunities in walking and biking that are unrealized when we only think of traffic.  When we think of traffic, we have to think of consuming land 3% of an acre at a time.  No wonder its a regional and national concern.  It would not fit locally.

A virtue of devolution would be that it would give even more power and direction to the states, themselves, to handle their local  transportation affairs as they see fit.  Having been through the tedious “can you propose an nationwide network of bike trails” canard a couple of times, iI realized that local funding priorities is exactly what biking, walking and even transit needs.  There are only a handful of interstate transits genies, but very few bike and walk trips  are interstate on a regular basis.


But do you need federal management for this?

Why not let the states control where they will get the most bang for their buck, and leave the national planning of the expensive, less efficient, and space hungry traffic network to the feds?  One problem with my suggestion is incentives.  If states realize they can get free money for doing one thing, but have to raise their own money for doing other things, which do you think they will do more readily?  Even if the free thing is ten times as expensive as the stuff they have to do themselves, they will take the free money.  This certainly happened with the interstate highways.  Originally correctly conceived as an intercity traffic mode of transport, cities lobbied to have they freeways taken into their cities both for national development dollars, and slum clearance.

Maybe state governments will begin to see the utility of local management and finance of local transportation when they see that the federal government is no longer authorizing hundreds of billions of our dollars every decade.  Maybe they will get pragmatic about transportation choice at that time.  Its not a fait accompli, but necessity may bear fruit.