Moving Beyond Highways

I would be remiss if I didn’t note the launch of a campaign for a new federal transportation policy. The news about the launch of the Transportation for America campaign was noted on StreetsBlog, Greater Greater Washington, and a number of other sites.

As I have written before, the federal law setting transportation policy will expire next year, and this group has been created to lobby Congress about the new policy.

I-96 and the Southfield Freeway, Detroit, MichiganFirst, some history. The Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956 was a bold law, which set the mold for America’s surface transportation policy up to today. The act established a federal gas tax which funded a highway trust fund. States could apply for funds to build highways, and in general the federal government would pay most of the cost (recently, roughly 80%) so long as it helped complete their planned national network. The idea was simple, and it worked at achieving the federal goal: encouraging states to plan and develop a national network of limited access freeways. That policy has remained largely unchanged to today, over 50 years later. However, in that time we’ve built the entire planned freeway network. Meanwhile, our public transit systems have languished. The 1991 transportation bill known as “ISTEA” was a significant shift from the old mold. It required metropolitan planning and gave significant funding for transit improvements. However, since then applications for transit funds have far outstripped the limited funds available. Even if applicants succeed in getting transit funds, the federal government only paid roughly half the cost — or less. Federal bureaucrats, especially under President George W. Bush, have created elaborate applications for the limited funds and pushed specific ideological perspectives. The highway bills have also become politicized, laced with Congressional earmarks including the famous Alaska “bridge to nowhere.”

The old model is obsolete for two major reasons:the gas tax, and our transportation needs. First, the federal per gallon gas tax hasn’t been changed in over a decade. Thanks to inflation, and more recently, declining gasoline use thanks to high prices, the amount of money coming in simply isn’t enough for all our transportation needs. Second, we don’t need to build a national highway network: we have one. More highways are not the answer to metropolitan congestion. We must shift gears profoundly, to focus on highway maintenance, urban mass transit, and overall sustainability in transportation. This leads us to what the new campaign is advocating. Their five-point platform is as follows:

1. Build passenger rail between and transit systems within cities
2. Invest in a green future including clean vehicles, new fuels, public transit, walking and biking
3. Restore our existing highways, bridges, and transit systems
4. Stop wasteful spending on projects with little economic return
5. Save Americans’ money by coordinating transportation and housing

DSCN1089.JPGI’ve focused on the bare bones of the platform, but the short policy statement released this week explains the other related issues: jobs, climate change, and oil dependence. Their materials say little so far about how these values relate to how federal policy should be organized. Earlier this summer I discussed some of the various competing proposals, including an infrastructure bank, capital budgeting project, or some version of what we have now. Its weaknesses aside, the report completed by a study commission set up by the last highway bill suggests how the existing federal programs and departments might be streamlined and reorganized.

The conventional wisdom surrounding the bill — echoed in the Roll Call story below — is that the “road lobby” that kept money flowing for roads over the past 50 years remains strong in Washington. Regardless of the political opponents, the Transportation for America advocates will have their work cut out for them trying to curb the congressional love of the earmark and corral diverse, locally-based activists and convince them to get involved in high-level policymaking.

> Transportation for America
> Roll Call: “T4 Lobby Maps Its Route”
> My Planetizen article: “Getting the Transportation Infrastructure We Need”
> Previous posts on the topic

Author: Rob Goodspeed


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