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February 12, 2016

A 50th Anniversary Look Back at ‘The Curses of Congestion in Commuting’

Lyndon Johnson

Although Johnson traveled in style as president, ordinary transit systems were on his mind. (Roll Call File Photo)

If you had a brutal commute this morning– a delayed subway, an overcrowded bus, or gridlocked highway traffic – ponder this statement made on this date 50 years ago: “All of us recognize that the curses of congestion in commuting cannot be wiped away with the single stroke of a pen.”

Those were the words of President Lyndon Johnson as he signed into law on July 9, 1964 the Urban Mass Transportation Act, which for the first time put the federal government in the business of paying for some of the costs of building and maintaining American cities’ train, bus, and subway systems.

The law authorized $375 million (equivalent to about $2.8 billion in today’s dollars) for a three-year program of grants to states and localities.

That $375 million as grown to $8 billion a year in outlays for mass transit from the Highway Trust Fund.

Johnson’s mass transit bill was part of his larger design of a Great Society – with far-reaching federal involvement in everything from health care (Medicare in 1965) to wilderness preservation (the Wilderness Act of 1964).

Most commuters today have grown up with federal subsidies for mass transit taken for granted as a feature of our transportation system.

Taxpayers in Idaho help pay for New York City’s subway system. Likewise, taxpayers in New York help pay for Boise’s transit center – even if a New Yorker never visits Boise in his life.

The debate in Congress in 1964 prefigured some of the arguments on transportation spending today.

According to CQ’s 1964 Almanac, a House opponent of the bill, Rep. Oliver P. Bolton, R – Ohio, said the law’s federal involvement in transportation planning was “the keystone in the arch of domination and control of every town in the country.” Already the federal government was in charge of urban renewal, slum clearing, and housing – and “transportation is the glue that binds them all together,” he said.

Republicans also complained about provisions in the bill that guaranteed workers in transit systems that got federal assistance that their pension rights, vacation time, and other benefits would be preserved if a city or county took over what had been a private bus or train line. Republican critics saw this as preserving cushy labor contracts – or “featherbedding.”

But CQ reported, “Apparently a major reason votes were garnered for House passage was election-year pressure on suburban Republicans to support the bill.”

Not every suburban Republican voted for it – one who voted “no” was a young Illinois House member named Donald Rumsfeld.

As in 1964, federal funding of mass transit has its critics today.

Chris Edwards, director of tax policy studies at the Cato Institute, told the Senate Finance Committee in testimony in May that federal aid for urban transit “covers about 40 percent of capital costs, on average, but just 6 percent of operating costs. That bias has tilted local governments toward expensive transit options, such as rail systems, and against more flexible and efficient bus systems…. Without federal aid, the states would rely on their own funding for transportation, and they would make more efficient decisions based on local needs.”

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    Jan. 1, 2016
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