I received a newsletter in the mail recently about the Purple Line, a light rail line in the planning process in the Washington, D.C. suburbs. Like hundreds of other public transit projects across the country, the rail line is in the "planning" stages and nobody can really say exactly when it will be constructed or begin operations.
The cause is simple: too little funds and a lack of political support both locally and from the federal government. Quite simply, we get more roads because our policies are structured to spend more money on them, and they're more popular with elected officials. Although the specific cause of the lack of transit investment is simple enough, its effect on the way transit systems are planned and perceived by the public is far from simple. The lack of funds has added complexity length to an already complex and lengthy process. As a result, project supporters and detractors alike are alienated from the planning, forced to navigate a morass of acronyms, plans, and steps.
The problem lies in the fact that since there is some money available, local supporters of the roughly 400 planned projects (with an estimated total cost of $248 billion) pretend they've got a shot at it. Time and again local boosters tell the media they'll just submit for federal funds and break ground after they complete the required paperwork. As we'll see, this couldn't be farther from the truth.