Changing The Rules of the Road: National Transportation Reform

For the past half century, Congress creates a new national transportation funding bill every six years or so.  Originally, the primary role of the Highway Trust Fund was to send federal gas tax money to the states to subsidize construction of the Interstate Highway System and other roads.  Over time, as national priorities have changed, the bill has authorized the Fund to cautiously include other modes (railroads, transit, bikeways, and walking paths) and a broader perspective (reducing traffic-related air pollution and safety).  The most recent six year cycle ended in 2009, and the next Transportation Funding Bill – now being debated – will not only shape how we travel but also the nature of our communities, the cleanliness of our environment, our level of daily physical activity, and much more.  All of us have a stake in the outcome. 

Over the decades, the amount of money coming through the Highway Fund has escalated to nearly $40 billion a year – which is a lot even by federal standards, but not nearly enough to cover the cost of repairing and maintaining neglected the bridges and roads used by cars, not to mention expanding rail or subway or bicycle infrastructure.  A recent round of transportation grants (the TIGER program) had $1.5 billion to award; states submitted applications for $56 billion.  However, the gas tax that provides most of the funds has been unchanged at 18.4 cents per gallon since 1993 and because it is not indexed for inflation its value has been declining  – a problem exacerbated by increasing vehicle fuel-efficiency and the long-term slowing in the annual growth of vehicle miles traveled (VMT).  The current recession has even led to a recent decline in VMT and therefore in gas tax revenue.

While Congress argues over how to pay for the needed improvements and how to prioritize the use of whatever funds are available, a national coalition — Transportation For America <> — has been created to demand that the country actually create a coherent 21stcentury multi-modal transportation plan, with measurable goals, that supports other national priorities ranging from energy security to public health to land use, give metro areas more power to make regional investment while enhancing equity, and encourages economic growth, and relies on a broader range of funding sources.  Vested interests will oppose many of these changes, but the T4A coalition thinks that many of its demands can win bipartisan support.  The trick is getting enough citizens to make their voices heard.

Setting Measurable & Focused National Transportation Goals

As a first step in a new direction, T4A wants to set measurable goals that shape how federal transportation money gets spent over the next six years.  Reflecting the coalition’s belief that transportation must support other values besides moving cars as fast as possible, the six goals are as much about the quality of life as about mobility.  The goals are extremely ambitious, but their purpose is to concretize a vision and set a direction rather than do-or-die endpoints.

  • Triple walking, biking, and public transportation usage
  • Reduce transportation-generated carbon dioxide levels by 40%
  • Achieve zero percent population exposure to at-risk levels of air pollution
  • Improve public safety and lower congestion costs by reducing traffic crashes by 50%
  • Reduce average household combined housing and transportation costs 25% (using 2000 as base year)
  • Increase share of major highways, regional transit fleets and facilities, and bicycling/pedestrian infrastructure in good state of condition by 20%
  • Reduce delay per capita by 10%
  • Reduce per capita vehicle miles traveled by 16%
  • Increase proportion of freight transportation provided by railroad & intermodal services by 20%

Focus Regional Decision-Making

Under Transportation for America’s plan, the trend towards increased regional involvement as well as state authority over transportation investments would continue.  Metropolitan areas would get some direct funding rather than having everything go through state agencies.  And regions would be required to implement a planning process that starts with developing wide agreement on core values and objectives, then models potential progress towards those goals that would occur under a variety of transportation spending scenarios, selects the scenarios that have the most acceptable trade-offs, uses those choices as the basis for investment decisions, and then monitors the impact of what is actually done.

In fact, the Boston metropolitan area has already implemented this approach.  The Massachusetts Area Planning Council (MAPC) conducted a year-long, widely participatory planning process to develop “Metro Future: Creating a Greater Boston Region” <>.   In this region, investment decisions are made by the Boston Region Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) <> which is heavily dominated by state agencies, but also includes a seat for MAPC.  So there is some chance that the Metro Future plan might have some impact.

Challenges And Opponents

If it all makes so much sense, what’s keeping the T4A ideas from getting adopted?  Of course, it’s not so simple.

First, there will be the obvious opposition from the highway construction, automobile, and gasoline industries.  Cars are not only a deep part of our culture, but also of our economy.  As many as one out of every seven jobs was once linked to the auto industry – from coal to steel to plastics to machine shops to service stations to the endless aftermarket.

Second, much of today’s progressive transportation ideas emerge from an urban context – buses, subways, bike paths, pedestrian-prioritized intersections, even smart growth, electric vehicles, and pollution prevention.  Heavily urbanized areas contain over 80 percent of the nation’s population and generate about 75 percent of the GNP.  But they contain only a small percent of the land area.

People who live in suburbs, rural areas, or even mid-size cities outside of the larger metropolitan centers inhabit a totally car-centric environment.  There is little or no public transportation or even rail road access.  Distances are too great for convenient bicycle travel.  Over half of our population is already too overweight and out of shape to be able to walk very far.  These people’s reality is shaped by the automobile.  Their most immediate needs relate to using cars.

And our political system reflects these patterns.  In the US Senate, where (thanks to Massachusetts) most of the political action is now focused, the Constitution’s state-based system of representation means that 51 of the Senators collectively represent only 18% of the national population.  Nothing will get passed that does not speak to their needs – which have a decidedly rural slant.  A successful reform effort will have to reframe the issue away from cars versus everything else towards energy security, economic competitiveness, connecting outlying population centers in secondary cities and suburbs with emerging job opportunities in other parts of the region, children’s safety and health, open land conservation, and environmental protection.  It will have to prominently support regional high-speed rail corridors that stop at mid-way points as well as city endpoints.  It will need to find ways to fund regional and suburban mini-routes (such as the downtown mini-van circulators that connect elderly residences with shopping centers and medical care), rural school bus routes as well as urban “safe routes to school” improvements, and improved rural roads.

Finally, in the current political climate it will be hard to find acceptable new revenues.  T4A estimates that meeting current needs will require at least $500 billion over the six year span of the bill.  At current levels, the gas tax will at most produce about $200 billion over that period, which will only dig us deeper into the hole we are currently sliding into.  Raising the gas tax hurts the millions of ordinary people who have no choice but to use their cars.  Finding an alternative, and then gaining majority support in Congress, will be incredibly hard.  In the meantime, Congress keeps simply passing extensions of the last transportation bill’s funding levels – making it impossible to do long-range planning.

Optimism Despite Current Difficulties

But the Transportation coalition is hopeful.  Congressional allies are laying the groundwork through “marker bills” that begin to lay out elements of the desired framework.  HR 2724, submitted by Representative Holt of New Jersey, introduces language for setting transportation funding performance targets.  S1619, the Livable Communities Act submitted by Senator Dodd of Connecticut, begins to describe transportation goals as part of a larger quality of life vision.  The Obama Administration has already signaled its own priorities.  Of the $1.5 billion in discretionary funds made available through the TIGER program of the American Recovery & Relief Act (ARRA – the stimulus bill),  26% went to transit, intermodal, and freight rail while only 23% was awarded to highway projects.  And, although it’s a long shot, the Obama Administration is trying to include money to cover public transportation agencies’ operating expenses in the upcoming jobs bill.

Ironically, the inability of the Democrats to overcome Republican filibusters to push through health insurance reform, climate protection, or job creation bills might open the door for a more bi-partisan transportation measure – although that would probably require that private sector interest would have to be given priority over public programs.

What We Can Do

There is a lot more that can be done under current regulations than most states, Massachusetts included, are actually doing.  We have to push our political and transportation policy makers to do better with what we have.  But it wouldn’t hurt to improve the federal rules that still constrain our options.

Everyone who believes that transportation is a powerful lever that shapes many aspects of our built environment – that influences our ability to live, work, raise families, play, and grow old in health and security – needs to go to the T4A website and sign up for their newsletter and action alerts.  And then, when they issue the call, we need to get in touch with our Congressional representative and deliver the message:  we care and we vote!

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