The typical way that federal transportation dollars are allocated is like the climax of a piñata party.
After the piñata is whacked open, there is a rush for the spilled candy. The big kids party leaders, transportation committee chairmen, and appropriations barons scoop up the biggest and juiciest chews, gumballs, and lollipops. The leavings are left for the little kids, who grab what they can.
During the scrum, little if any consideration is given to the consequences of consuming so many sweets. If fleeting thoughts of cavities, root canals, and staggering dental bills emerge, they are swiftly stomped back into the neurological ether.
A bipartisan group of DC worthies has published a set of recommendations for reforming transportation funding. It is based on the premise that there must be a better way to allocate transportation dollars than for congressmen and entrenched interests to gorge themselves on federal sugar.
The better way that the report lays out is setting national goals and then measuring for results. Any 8-year-old facing a math test could figure that out.
Unfortunately, 8-year-olds are not eligible for election to Congress.
Both pork barreling and partisanship are obstacles blocking transportation policy reform. At a Seattle conference rolling out the proposals, one of the reform project's co-chairs, former Senator Slade Gorton (R-WA), said with a wry smile that his group is "optimistic" that the political obstacles can be overcome.
Gorton's partners in the endeavor include former Congressmen Sherwood Boehlert (R-NY) and Martin Sabo (D-MN), former Detroit Mayor Dennis Archer, and a gaggle of academics, industry and labor leaders, and transportation officials. Let's have a look at what they came up with.
First, roads, railways, and other transportation systems that previous generations built are overused and getting old. The Interstate Highway System, for example, dates to the 1950s. Money for maintenance, let alone expansion, is short. What money is available is "typically distributed without any sense of national priorities, and there is little to no recognition of the link between transportation investments, energy, and climate," as the report put it.
It will take vision and a strong sense of the national interest to put things right. The origins of the Interstate Highway System are a good case study of what's possible. In 1919, Dwight Eisenhower, then a young Army lieutenant colonel, rode along on a convoy of military vehicles that traveled from Washington, DC to San Francisco in order to see how quickly defense equipment could be moved coast to coast in the event of a national emergency.
Thanks to dust, mud, poor roads, and worse bridges, the convoy completed its journey at an average speed of 6 miles per hour. Ike may as well have walked to San Francisco.
Eisenhower never forgot the experience. Nearly four decades later, as president, he prodded Congress to approve a national system of superhighways worthy of a continent-sized industrial economy.
Today, the U.S. has different transportation priorities, but the need for overarching national goals has not changed. The bipartisan group recommended five goals to govern how transportation money is doled out: economic growth, national connectivity, metropolitan accessibility, energy security and environmental protection, and safety.
The suggested metrics for tracking energy security and environmental protection are straightforward and on point: petroleum consumption and carbon dioxide emissions. Projects that result in less of both are good and should be funded. Projects that don't shouldn't.
There are other useful wrinkles in the document. Such as:
One size does not fit all. The feds should set goals, but leave planning and construction details to states and localities.
It's past time for ideological "roads vs. transit" mode wars to end. Liberals who think cars are evil and conservatives who want to pour asphalt to the horizons should understand that both roads and transit ought to be built and managed as components of integrated transportation systems.
Fuel economy and the advent of electric cars will make gasoline taxes an increasingly less useful funding source for transportation projects. Time to start talking about user fees that collect the full costs of transportation consumption.
It's a thoughtful, challenging piece of work. Its enactment into law is improbable, but it deserves a try.
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