What It Takes to Get on Track: Exploring State-Level Policy Change in Public Transit Funding

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Haverford College. Department of Political Science
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I sought to understand the factors affecting political support for public transit by studying the process of policy change that has taken place around recent attempts to boost state transit funding. This research connects to the broader field in three important ways. First, it adds to our knowledge of state transportation politics, a topic that has received less attention than other policy domains at the state level such as education and criminal justice. Second, it provides an opportunity to apply theories of policy change across several different states, each with their own political histories and idiosyncrasies. Third, it examines the effect of rising political polarization on the policy change process. Voters have become increasingly split along partisan lines in their support for public transit, but scholars have not comprehensively documented the effects of this shift on transportation funding, a pattern that has repeated itself across many other policy domains at the state level. I reviewed several of the leading theories of policy change and coalition politics, including Kingdon’s multiple-streams theory of agenda setting, Baumgartner and Jones’s punctuated equilibrium model of policymaking, and Sabatier’s advocacy coalition framework. However, the purpose of this thesis was not to test different theories against each other but to find elements within each of them that proved useful for classifying and illuminating the political challenges faced by efforts to expand state transit funding. This approach was informed by my choice to use an inductive research method to study the issue of transportation funding with the goal of forming broader conclusions about the state policymaking process. My research focused around two sets of case studies, each comparing a state that succeeded at substantially increasing funding for public transportation over the past decade to a similar state that failed to do so. The first set compared Michigan and Pennsylvania, both controlled by Republicans during the early 2010s, while the second set compared Illinois and New Jersey, both controlled by Democrats since 2018. I chose not to pair states with different parties in power, because the evidence for the influence of partisanship on attitudes towards public transit is so strong that it would have made it difficult to isolate other factors. I employed primarily qualitative methods in my research to explore the policy change process and understand the political obstacles to state public transit funding, with some quantitative methods to contextualize each case study. The most important strategy for developing my empirical data involved interviewing actors who were involved in or familiar with the policymaking process in each state, including reporters, transportation agency officials, and interest group leaders. I also incorporated both primary and secondary sources relevant to each of my case studies, including legislative records and newspaper coverage of the policy change process. To complement my qualitative analysis, I analyzed federal time-series data on transit agency funding and ridership from 1991 to 2020. I found that there were four dynamics that best explained the success or failure of efforts to increase dedicated state transit funding. Coalition politics within each state’s broader transportation funding subsystem influenced the agenda-setting process, particularly the relative strengths of transit-supportive and road-supportive coalitions. Efforts by advocates to redefine the policy image of public transit as an economic generator, rather than a social welfare service, affected their ability to disrupt the existing transportation funding equilibrium. Even with both a suitable coalition and a positive policy image, transit funding required the backing of the governor, due to their ability to set the state political agenda. Finally, legislative polarization influenced debates over funding for public transportation, but it primarily came into play late in the policymaking process, after the scope of the political agenda had already been set. My results demonstrate the utility of theories of policy change in understanding a particular policy issue but highlight that no single theory can comprehensively describe every dynamic within each subsystem. For instance, the multiple-streams theory of agenda setting characterizes problems, policies, and politics as flowing mostly independent of each other. This may have been true in the highly developed, amply resourced policy environment of Washington, D.C., but it does not accurately describe the reality in even large state capitals. I found that the lines between the problem and policy streams tended to blur, as interest groups raised the alarm about the state’s decaying infrastructure with one hand while they drafted the bill to solve the problem with the other. With far fewer independent think tanks and policy experts, the agenda-setting process at the state level may be less well-defined. The primary limitation of my research design—indeed, of any small-N analysis—is that it is difficult to be certain that the conclusions developed from the case studies apply more generally. There are so many factors at play that make it difficult to pinpoint any single element as the key determinant leading to successful or unsuccessful efforts to expand transit funding. However, this inductive research has laid the groundwork for future scholars of transportation funding and state policymaking, who could generate specific hypotheses around coalition strength, economic policy image, gubernatorial support, and legislative polarization, then test them on a larger dataset to see if my conclusions stand up to scrutiny.