Over the past 50 years, the U.S. has been transformed thanks to massive investment in the interstate highway system. Funded in large part by the federal gas tax, the federal government has set policies and allocated funds to states to construct the national network under a series of bills starting with the 1956 National Interstate and Defense Highway Act. However, the country stands at a crossroads. Although the originally planned system is complete, congestion in our metropolitan areas have reached epidemic levels. Planners in many parts of the country have found that new roads don’t alleviate congestion but generate new traffic and urban sprawl, and for the first time cities are pouring billions into modern public transportation systems.
Every five years the U.S. Congress passes a bill defining the federal government’s transportation policy. The most recent bill, the Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act: A Legacy for Users (or SAFETEA-LU) will expire on September 30, 2009, so the next Congress will tackle the task of creating a new bill. Despite containing record amounts for mass transit projects and alternative transportation like biking, the $286.4 billion bill left many dissatisfied. A boom in mass transit projects has far outstripped the allocated funds, and the bill contained thousands of earmarks for specific projects that don’t necessarily alleviate congestion or contribute to an overall plan. The collapse of the I-35W interstate bridge last summer underscored the need to rethink federal transportation policy, to emphasize maintenance of the existing infrastructure and new approaches addressing congestion.
Due to the growing transportation problems and dissatisfaction with the existing programs, the SAFETEA-LU bill created a commission to study the issue and provide recommendations to Congress for the bill’s successor. I plan to follow the debate over the law to follow SAFETEA-LU closely over the next year, and I thought a good way to start would be to review the commission’s recommendations. In a remarkable report published in December, the commission suggested nothing less than a radical overhaul of virtually all of the federal government’s transportation programs. However, given the specter of global warming and the country’s dependence on oil, do they go far enough? Let’s take a look.
The commission made three major policy recommendations: accelerate the length of time it takes to complete transportation projects, re-organize all federal transportation programs into 10 topical programs, and create a new independent public commission to oversee a national transportation plan and make funding recommendations to Congress.
The report observes that it takes the average highway project 13 years to move from project initiation to completion (I’d guess it’s even longer for major transit projects) the committee offered suggestions to speed the process, mostly through modest reforms of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) process. They suggest Congress create a streamlined NEPA process for projects with “few significant impacts,” set time limits for review, narrow the definition of reasonable alternatives, among others. It’s not clear to me if these changes will be adequate or politically feasible, given the importance of the NEPA process to environmentalists to slow or stop damaging projects.
The second reform would reorganize over 100 federal transportation programs into just ten: infrastructure maintenance, freight, metropolitan congestion, transportation safety, rural transportation, intercity passenger rail, environmental programs, alternative fuels, federal lands access, and research and development. From the report:
My only quibble with the re-organization regards lumping all metropolitan issues together under the topic of “congestion relief.” Urban transportation policy isn’t just about addressing congestion but creating efficient, complex, multi-modal systems that drive urban economies. While it’s good to plan multi-modal systems, I’m also concerned lumping mass transit initiatives together with highways will de-emphasize their importance.
The last suggestion is the creation of a new, independent federal commission to oversee transportation planning at a federal level similar to the Postal Regulatory Commission or the Defense Base Closure and Realignment Commission. This National Surface Transportation Commission (NASTRAC) would have ten presidentially-appointed members serving staggered six year terms. The commission would make revenue recommendations directly to congress, on which congress could exercise a 2/3 veto.
The programs generally fund projects at significantly higher levels than under existing programs, for example, metropolitan programs at 80%. To pay the tab the commission suggests raising the federal gas tax from $.59 to $1.03 per gallon. They suggest boosting it $.05-$.08 for five years, and then indexing the tax to inflation. While there is some discussion of the problem of alternative fuels cutting into this gas tax revenue, the report has few specific ideas for major new revenue sources. The current federal U.S. gas tax of 18.4 cents per gallon, hasn’t changed since 1993, and the Washington Post characterized increasing it to be a political “improbability.”
Up next will be posts about the commission’s funding level proposals, a discussion of the equity of congestion taxes, the politics of transit funding, and any other topics I come across. Suggestions?