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John Hennessy III,

The Route to Reform: Blueprint for a 21st Century Federal Transportation Program

Posted by Content Coordinator on Thursday, February 18th, 2010


In 1956, President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed into law the largest public works program in history, an infrastructure project that would reshape America in the 20th century. The National Interstate and Defense Highways Act, as it is commonly known, embodied a vision that America’s cities and states could be linked with a network of superhighways that would allow people, commerce and the military to move rapidly from one part of the country to another.

Fifty years later, the Interstate Highway System has been built, and America stands in desperate need of a new vision for our national transportation system. Just as the Interstate highway bill answered some of the most pressing mobility needs of the rapidly growing nation in the mid-20th century, a new federal surface transportation bill must answer the vastly different needs of America in the 21st century. The next transportation program must set about the urgent task of repairing and maintaining our existing transportation assets, building a more well-rounded transportation network, and making our current system work more efficiently and safely to create complete and healthy communities. It should invest in modern and affordable public transportation, safe places to walk and bicycle, smarter highways that use technology and tolling to better manage congestion, long-distance rail networks, and land use policies that reduce travel demand by locating more affordable housing near jobs and services. And it should put us on the path towards a stronger national future by helping us reduce our oil dependency, slow climate change, improve social equity, enhance public health, and fashion a vibrant new economy.

Getting there from here will require some significant reforms. To meet these goals, the T4 America coalition offers four main recommendations for the upcoming transportation authorization bill:

»» Develop a New National Transportation Vision with Objectives and Accountability for Meeting Performance Targets.

»» Restructure Federal Transportation Programs and Funding to Support the New National Transportation Vision and Objectives.

»» Reform Transportation Agencies and the Decision-making Process.

»» Revise Transportation Finance So We Can Pay for Needed Investments.

Develop a New National Transportation Vision with Objectives and Accountability for Meeting Performance Targets

The next federal surface transportation bill should articulate a clear and compelling national vision with specific goals for implementation that will build and maintain a comprehensive National Transportation System. This system will be essential for helping us respond to the myriad challenges facing our nation today, including the economy, energy, public health, the environment, an aging population, and equal access and fair treatment for all communities and transportation users.

America in the 21st century needs a complete National Transportation System that includes safe, well-maintained, and efficient highway, rail and public transportation systems, as well as bicycling and pedestrian networks. T4 America calls on Congress to clearly define the national interest and purpose of the federal transportation program by adopting and implementing the following set of National Transportation Objectives:

1. Improve Economic Competitiveness, Transportation System Efficiency and Workforce Development Opportunities
2. Improve Transportation System Conditions and Connectivity
3. Promote Energy Efficiency and Achieve Energy Security
4. Ensure Environmental Protection, Restore Climate Stability and Resolve Persistent Environmental Justice Issues
5. Ensure Safety for All Transportation Users and Improve Public Health Outcomes
6. Provide Equal and Equitable Access to Transportation Options in Urban, Suburban and Rural Communities

The next federal surface transportation bill should hold state and local transportation agencies accountable for meeting the transportation needs of an increasingly diverse America and should focus on the needs of both our major metropolitan areas and our small towns and rural regions. In order to do so, the federal government should establish performance targets that correspond to the National Transportation Objectives, along with significant oversight measures, while looking to states and regions to develop the plans for achieving these outcomes within federal guidelines.

Restructure Federal Transportation Programs to Support the New National Transportation Vision and Objectives

To achieve our national goals, T4 America calls on Congress to restructure and consolidate, federal programs away from single-mode “silos” towards greater integration, and provide the tools for states, regions and localities to develop solutions.

A core set of National Priority Programs should be established for:

»Outcome-Based Planning;
»System Preservation and Renewal;
»Access, Independence and Mobility Management for Seniors, Disabled and Low-Income Families;
»Transportation Safety; and,
»Energy Security for Clean Communities.

The next bill should include a set of multimodal programs, geographically tailored to meet mobility needs at the inter-regional, metropolitan, small town and rural levels to support highways, passenger and freight rail, public transportation and bicycle and pedestrian projects. It should also provide cities with direct funding for project implementation and provide new operating funding for public transportation agencies.

The programs established in the next transportation bill should help us complete our national transportation system, with particular focus on expanding transportation options. Transportation for America supports programs that will build a modern, intercity passenger rail network, “green” our freight transport systems and our ports, and expand high-quality public transportation and bicycling and pedestrian networks within metropolitan areas. The goal of our investment program must be a nationally interconnected system of roads, rail, public transportation, pedestrian, and bicycling facilities.

Finally, a set of Innovation Programs should be created to spur states and communities to advance state-of-the-art transportation policies into state-of-the-practice. Strategies could include increasing research and development of new system management technologies, pursuing innovative least-cost projects, and implementing policies that anticipate future needs and demands.

Reform Transportation Agencies and the Decision-making Process

When the United States Congress passed the National Interstate Highways and Defense Act of 1956, it empowered the states to construct the 41,000-mile system of superhighways to connect the nation. Fifty years later, with most Americans living in metropolitan areas, our primary challenge is mobility within cities and their suburbs, rather than between regions. America’s metropolitan regions face complex challenges that demand new approaches and more responsive institutions.

T4 America believes that, along with greater accountability, there must also be more local voices and local control in the transportation decision-making process.

T4 America proposes empowering regions to shape their future by giving them more direct funding and decision-making authority, while holding them accountable for results. The T4 America platform also calls for new approaches and practices such as “complete streets” policies that are designed to meet the needs of all users; the adoption of flexible design and mobility guidelines that emphasize cost-effectiveness; a new stormwater policy standard to reduce water pollution from federally funded roadways; new incentives for affordable housing near public transportation; and local hiring and workforce development provisions to boost green jobs nationwide.

At the same time, the federal program must acknowledge the powerful, inevitable interaction between transportation investments and local growth and development, as well as the profound impact that development patterns have on the nation’s economic, environmental and energy goals.

T4 America proposes a new Blueprint Program that would empower major metropolitan areas with direct transportation funding and greater authority to select projects, in return for progress toward meeting national objectives. In addition, we recommend that state Departments of Transportation (DOTs) be required to develop statewide blueprints, in partnership with smaller Metropolitan Planning Organizations (MPOs), cities, and rural planning districts, that demonstrate how transportation investments across the state advance community goals and national transportation objectives. Once certified, state blueprints would provide the framework for state DOTs to lead on intercity and interstate investments, and also serve as the framework for investment decisions of funds sub-allocated to smaller MPOs, cities and rural planning districts. The Blueprint process also creates the framework to speed project selection and delivery by completing analysis of a comprehensive package of investments on the front-end.

Revise Transportation Finance So We Can Pay for Needed Investments

In the summer of 2008, Congress had to patch the highway trust fund with an $8 billion infusion from the general fund. A similar fix may be needed again this summer. The nation needs to develop a sustainable method of raising revenue for federal transportation programs. Increased revenues for transportation are needed, and T4 America is prepared to support a near-doubling of the current federal investment to roughly $500 billion over the next six years.  However, neither we nor the American public will support this increase unless it is linked to real reform and can produce the sort of results outlined in this proposal.

T4 America believes the nation must diversify the funding sources for transportation and engage in an aggressive effort to spur innovation and develop new revenue strategies. Existing revenue projections for both the short and long term, coupled with growing needs for maintenance and construction, are clearly outstripping the capacity of the motor fuel tax. In the short run, it may be necessary to raise the federal gas tax, or to index it to inflation, in preparation for a transition to a tax based on vehicle miles traveled. This proposal includes options for other innovative finance mechanisms such as congestion pricing to pay for travel options in a given corridor, a National Infrastructure Bank, and a per-barrel surcharge on oil. T4 America proposes three distinct revenue alternatives that each would generate over $500 billion for the next six-year authorization period.

As new revenue sources are developed, T4 America urges Congress to reform the program to create a Unified Transportation Trust Fund that would allow greater integration of surface transportation systems and help to balance allocations of federal dollars in a broader portfolio of investments in rail, freight, highways, bus, and non-motorized transportation.

Download Full Report (PDF): The Route to Reform

About Transportation for America
“Transportation for America is a growing and diverse coalition focused on creating a national transportation program that will take America into the 21st century by building a modernized infrastructure and healthy communities where people can live, work and play.
We have formed a broad coalition of real estate, housing, environmental, public health, equity, business, transportation and other organizations that seek to align our national, state, and local transportation policies with an array of issues: economic opportunity, climate change, energy security, health, housing and community development. We believe a new national vision will play a key role in strengthening the foundation of our nation.

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