Vol. 21, No. 23
In the relentless 24/7 news cycle of the news media, the release of another policy report by a group of experts causes hardly a ripple. At best it earns a perfunctory mention by the news services and in a few trade publications, only to be buried and forgotten in the next day’s avalanche of fresh news.
The report Well Within Reach: America’s New Transportation Agenda, published by the Miller Center of Public Affairs at the University of Virginia on October 5, deserves a more considerate treatment. The report not only stands out because it is the product of a distinguished bipartisan group of national thought leaders in transportation but also because it shows a keen grasp of the issues surrounding contemporary transportation policy.
The report had its origin in the initiative of former Virginia Governor Gerald L. Baliles, Director of the Miller Center. Baliles’ idea was to assemble a select group of respected transportation professionals and draw on their collective wisdom and experience to develop, in the Governor’s own words, “a credible agenda to guide the legislative process and offer lasting value to the discussions of the future of our transportation system.” The group that he recruited included two distinguished former Secretaries of Transportation, Samuel K. Skinner and Norman Y. Mineta, as Conference Co-Chairmen and former Transportation Undersecretary for Policy Jeffrey N. Shane as Conference Director. The 80 invited participants in the two-day meeting included a number of senior U.S. DOT officials from past administrations and leading professionals representing a wide array of public and private transportation interests. (see, “Reconsidering the Current Paradigm: Notes From the Miller Center Transportation Conference,” Innovation NewsBrief, September 17, 2009)
The report, distilled from the conference discussions, contains ten proposals. They are billed as “specific enough to be actionable (without being overly prescriptive) and bold enough to bring about real reform while still politically viable, understandable to the broader public and pragmatically achievable.” Most of the recommendations will come as no surprise to those who have followed the years-long debate in the transportation community about the need to reform the federal-aid program. The proposals address the need to deal with the immediate crisis in transportation funding; eventual transition to a vehicle-miles traveled (VMT) fee; adoption of a capital budget; a more robust system of freight and intermodal connections; and the need to reduce urban traffic congestion, encourage public-private partnerships, streamline the project approval process and measure program performance.
The report devotes major attention to the issues of federalism as they affect transportation policy. The case it makes for a proper division of responsibilities and authority between states and the federal government is worth quoting in extenso:
“Importantly, a policy that recognizes the federal interest and that articulates national-level policy objectives can still be pursued in ways that leave the planning and implementation details to state and local officials whenever possible. …It may be worth considering a new paradigm that explicitly distinguishes the federal “role” from the federal “interest.” Not everywhere there is a federal interest is there also an appropriate federal role. Given that federal resources are unlikely to be sufficient to address every need in which there is a potential federal interest, Congress should reassess its core national priorities for transportation and then limit the federal role to support those priorities. That would mean ending federal participation in programs that fall outside identified national priorities.”
This recommendation is likely to resonate strongly in the next Congress which will be under considerable pressure to reduce discretionary spending and shrink the scope of federal government. Indeed, one proposal currently floating within the transportation community already reflects the Miller Center report’s philosophy. The proposal envisions a 3-year surface transportation bill that would focus federal resources only on programs having a long-standing, well-established and essential federal role — essentially the core elements (both highway and transit) of the existing federal-aid program. The proposal would let states assume responsibility for programs that respond to local political objectives or are primarily of local benefit (e.g., the many Transportation Enhancement activities, CMAQ, “Livable Communities,” etc.) Shedding discretionary programs of local interest would offer a partial answer to the problem of funding shortfall that haunts the transportation community.
For example, a 3-year surface transportation bill funded at an annual level of $52 billion/year (which roughly, would pay for the primary core activities of both the highway and transit programs) would cost a manageable sum of $156 billion. With FY 2011-2013 highway trust fund tax revenues and interest expected to generate approximately $120 billion (CBO August 2010 estimate), the annual shortfall would require only a relatively modest supplemental contribution from general revenue of $12 billion/year.
Winning Public Support
The report’s authors consider action on a transportation reform agenda “well within reach” and, like many other advocates in the transportation community, urge prompt congressional consideration of a multi-year surface transportation bill. “It is our hope,” the report states in its introduction, “that this report will underscore the urgency of America’s transportation challenges and the importance of developing at long last achievable solutions that will sustain America’s growth and prosperity over the long term.”
But the report acknowledges that convincing the American public of the need to act, and act promptly, will not be easy: “Winning public support for these types of reforms will require policy makers to unite behind a compelling vision for US transportation policy in the 21st century, while also providing a clearer articulation of the federal role in realizing that vision.”
Convincing the next Congress to act may be equally challenging. In addition to having to deal with many urgent priorities (continued unemployment, energy legislation, attempts to modify healthcare legislation, etc.) most congressional lawmakers do not perceive infrastructure as an urgent priority. They see no signs of a popular outcry about the stalled transportation reauthorization, nor do they perceive a groundswell of support for massive transportation investments.
In fact, what we are seeing is just the opposite. For example, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s decision to cancel work on the long-planned tunnel under the Hudson River, saying “the state simply doesn’t have the money” to pay its share of the potential $11-14 billion project, has resonated strongly with his constituents worried about the state’s financial health and noting New York’s lack of support. Republican candidates for governor in California (Meg Whitman), Florida (Rick Scott), Ohio (John Kasich) and Wisconsin (Scott Walker) who have pledged to cancel high-speed rail projects in their states if elected, are running ahead of their Democratic opponents who are supporting President Obama’s $8 billion high-speed rail initiative. And the bold and visionary Amtrak proposal to link Boston and Washington with a dedicated high-speed rail line has failed to stir any enthusiasm among the public or in Congress.
Calls to action and cries of alarm about “crumbling infrastructure” come largely from organized interests — stakeholders and advocacy groups. Rightly or wrongly, elected officials often discount these claims as self-serving. Moreover, many lawmakers come from rural districts that experience little traffic congestion and whose roads are in a state of good repair and well maintained. Incidents of collapsing bridges are happily few and far between. Finally, as Rep. John Mica (R-FL), ranking member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee likes to point out, more than 60 percent of the stimulus infrastructure dollars still remain unspent. All this adds weight to the legislative inertia of tackling a major spending bill any time soon — President Obama’s latest call for a $50 billion infrastructure spending plan (which included a flattering reference to the Miller Center Report) notwithstanding.
The reforms sought by the Miller Center report are eminently sound and could easily be embraced by both parties (The one exception might be a capital budget or its close relative, a National Infrastructure Bank , proposals that are viewed with skepticism by many in Congress). But whether the reforms are “within reach” of being enacted by the 112th Congress depends less on their merit than on the mood of the next Congress and, in a larger sense, on the mood of the country. And that mood, growing decidedly more conservative, may be suspicious of any ambitious new federal initiative no matter how well intentioned.
The Miller Center report can be accessed at:
C. Kenneth Orski is a public policy consultant and former principal of the Urban Mobility Corporation. He has worked professionally in the field of transportation for over 30 years, in both the public and private sector. He is editor and publisher of Innovation NewsBriefs, now in its 21st year of publication.