Fixing America’s Federal Transportation Policy

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.

RockvilleEvery 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.

National Surface Transportation Policy and Revenue Study CommissionDue 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:

National Surface Transportation Policy and Revenue Study Commission

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.

Capital Beltway and Route 50The 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?

Author: Rob Goodspeed


  1. I agree with your “quibble” about lumping all metropolitan issues under congestion relief. Actually, my objection is more than a quibble. The principles and standards of the transportation engineering profession have for too long been single-mindedly focused on free-flowing traffic. The result has been ever-wider roadways, the removal of trees and sidewalks; and in the suburbs, pods, superblocks, and auto-oriented arterial design. This has had terrible impacts on livable, walkable streets in the nation’s cities and suburbs. There’s more about this topic in this blog post: Connectivity Part 7: Crash Safety

    The language of “mobility” serves only the auto and highway lobbies. But in general, people don’t want “mobility” for its own sake. They just want convenient, efficient access to their daily activities. In many cases that can be provided with better land use planning and smarter use of existing infrastructure. Making “mobility” the priority simply paves the way for more big-ticket highway facilities: Cloverleafs, flyovers, double-decking, etc.

    The National Surface Transportation Policy Commission report advocates streamlining the permitting process, mainly by shortening the environmental review of new facilities. From what I have heard, the need for this reform is real and valid. However, any changes to the environmental review procedures must be carefully vetted by environmental and smart growth organizations to make sure critical protections aren’t being shortchanged.

    The National Surface Transportation Policy Commission report recognizes transit as an essential part of the nation’s transportation infrastructure. It’s going to be essential to see that recognition realized in the form of supportive administrative procedures, funding and guiding principles. It was disturbing to hear that a major pro-rail passage in the Report was unilaterally excised, even though it was adopted by a 9-3 majority vote of the commission. (See Surface Transportation Commission’s Pro-rail Section Disappears from Report)

  2. Perhaps a future post could discuss the dissenting opinion filed by the Secretary of Transportation and her allies from the Republican side?

    Also, it seems like our transportation policy is driven in part by our planning and zoning decisions. Did the commission make any recommendations or observations in that regard?

  3. I don’t know. I guess from living in the Bay Area for so long, I saw what congestion relief can look like even if it doesn’t mean new freeways. It can and should mean better timed lights and more regional/multi-city approach to traffic management. Of course the Bay has to deal not only with congestion, but managing EPA requirements to lower pollution. So they are thinking bigger. California also relatively low tax, and with high cost of construction, is very big on the idea of BRT. Real BRT, separated lanes, new platforms for entering and exiting. And better designed buses. And with a largely surface-based transit system (as is increasingly common, elsewhere and with new systems), congestion relief is also tied into making transit more effective and travel times lower.

    Not that we don’t need to think about a more holistic approach to planning and transit, but congestion relief doesn’t seem all that bad. As long as it doesn’t just lead to bigger roads.

  4. Christoper – I basically agree, but differ with you about political rhetoric. The San Francisco measures you describe can certainly make congestion less severe. But as long as the population is increasing and driving is the easiest, cheapest or fastest option, congestion will continue to exist.

    As far as conventional traffic engineering standards and the highway lobby are concerned, the only thing that will “solve” congestion is bigger roads and more elaborate highway facilities. That’s usually what congestion relief means. Of course, those “solutions” are short-lived because the new capacity fills quickly, especially when they enable new sprawl development. Under the conventional traffic paradigm, another round of road widening will be needed in short order; an endless cycle that’s good for the highway business and bad for the community.

    The measures that you describe in San Francisco more often go by the label of “demand management.” See for more.

  5. Anyone who say that highways naturally just get congested is a liar who has never been on I-87 in Westchester County.

    Why is it that the “logic” used for the religion against any highway construction is never applied to anything else?

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