Plumb Lines

May 12, 2009

Better Transportation is Possible

Filed under: Uncategorized — David Schaengold @ 10:13 am

The big news today on the transportation policy front is that T4America, whom I blogged about here, has finally released their “Blueprint for a 21st Century Federal Transportation Program” (and here’s the summary). While imperfect, this is a really good document. I’m happy to say I was involved in some very small way with the first drafts that circulated among progressive transportation policy organizations a year ago. You should really read this yourself, but here are a few excerpts:

Ending the wild favoritism the federal government shows towards new highway construction is probably the single most important component national transportation policy reform. Level the playing field!

In order to end existing inequities between different modes and streamline the project selection process, the new legislation should simplify administration of funds and provide parity in the obligation process, match ratios, accountability measures and project delivery systems between modes. Simply put, the current process for funding new transit capacity has become so onerous as to discourage some applicants while very little performance review is required for new highway capacity. This inequity must be addressed, with an improved and comparable project delivery process for all new capacity regardless of mode or sponsor agency.

This, on the other hand, looks like a big punt to me:

Previous transportation bills provided flexibility for transferring funds and suballocating dollars to cities and regions, but lacked federal direction on what kind of national objectives should be promoted through these investments. Local and regional empowerment has been stunted in most states due to the lack of authority at the regional or local levels in the project selection process and absence of direct funding allocation decision-making.

Transportation policy reformers want most transportation decision-making to happen at the metropolitan level, because this is where most transportation happens (three cheers for subsidiarity!), as opposed to the state level, which is where most transportation decision-making currently happens. The problem with any kind of sub-federal control of spending, however, is that smaller governments are extremely sensitive to very minor tweaks in the US Dept of Transportation’s funding policies. Moreover, most Metropolitan Planning Organizations, who are responsible for transportation decision-making for metropolitan regions, are run by appointees. Like the state DOT’s, they mostly view their mission as rubber-stamping highway projects. So, local control is good, but you want that local control to be exercised by citizens, not by appointees. Hence the ambivalence of the passage above.

David Schaengold

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