Proposal for the next transportation bill would improve — but not redefine — federal funding.
Congressman James Oberstar (D-MN) released his draft of the next transportation bill yesterday to tempered excitement from transportation advocates. The Surface Transportation Authorization Act, as Mr. Oberstar has named the bill, is an ambitious vision for national transportation policy, representing a significant increase in funding and a focus on multimodalism. Its primary effects on transit would be a simplification of both the New Starts and Fixed Guideway Maintenance programs. But the bill retains the typically American focus on a car-based society and it is likely to encounter strong resistance in Congress over the next few months.
Streetsblog’s Elana Schor appropriately pointed to the bill’s preference for spending on highways over transit — a problem that has hampered federal spending on public transportation for decades. Transit would receive about 22% of the funding in the new $450 billion bill, compared to 18% in SAFETEA-LU, the last major piece of transportation legislation. The draft outline did not specify how that money would be distributed to the various transit programs.
Yet, the bill’s real coup is the creation of a new Office of Intermodalism, which would be charged with implementing projects from a mode-neutral perspective. This means that a significant percentage of the money to be allocated to “highways” in the statistic quoted above may well end up in the hands of transit — if the people running the executive branch are on our side.
The new office’s Metropolitan Mobility and Access program would evaluate metropolitan area projects based on population and time travel delay and establish multi-year grant agreements similar to those currently provided under the New Start capital grants process. This program could make it far easier for metropolitan areas to focus their spending on improving transit without having to rely on the states to approve or reject projects from the state perspective, which is usually roads-oriented. Importantly, projects would be judged on their merits, something never done for road projects today; this may give transit projects a comparative advantage.
A Projects of National Significance program would expand an existing federal resource into a series of major competitive discretionary grants that would be awarded to transportation corridors of particularly significance at the national level, not just for a state or region. These grants could be of particular benefit for rail improvements, since these connections would presumably cross state lines and extend into a nationwide network. The bill also includes a mammoth $50 billion for high-speed rail, an appropriate amount for an Eisenhower-level investment over the next six years. The DOT would be asked to create a National Transportation Strategic Plan, which would aggregate existing state TIPs and establish a vision for long-term investments, something sorely needed in a country where thinking from the nationwide perspective is too often poo-pooed.
Finally, the Office of Intermodalism would run a new National Infrastructure Bank, which would play a role in funding potentially (eventually) self-financing projects. This concept has been around for years, and it has some merit, but the American experience in using government funds to sponsor private industry programs has been problematic so often that there ought to be some question as to how effectively this Bank would function. For the most part, the U.S. should probably stick to direct federal investments in transportation; assuming that corporations will pay back debt is too often illusory.
These programs sound promising, but we’ve yet to see numbers about how much money each would receive. Are we talking about minor operations, or a major policy change? Will basic highway programs continue to be the major investment coming from Washington? Or is a full-bore use of the multi-modal programs, with an emphasis on improving transportation in metropolitan regions, a true possibility?
No matter, the draft bill’s suggestions for improvements for the Fixed Guideway and New Start modernization programs are exciting, relevant, and appropriate. The nation’s older transit systems are falling apart, and Washington knows it. The existing Fixed Guideway Modernization Program distributes funds arbitrarily, relying on a 7-tier formula that rewards cities irrespective of their actual maintenance needs. Mr. Oberstar’s bill “recognizes that ages of transit systems vary” and advocates the reaching of a state of good repair for all systems. Instead of using the existing formulas, a new single process would calculate the infrastructure maintenance needs of older systems and adjust appropriately. This is a worthy policy change.
The New Starts (and subsidiary Small Starts) program would also be altered for the better. The existing process for transit agencies seeking to expand service on a particular line requires them to submit themselves to three phases of design — alternatives analysis, preliminary engineering, and final design — before they’re accepted for final funding by the Federal Transit Administration. This bill would consolidate these studies into one simplified stage called project development, with one application and one approval letter. Projects would be compared to a no-action alternative in the evaluation process, not the “enhanced baseline” required today — an alternative never actually implemented. Years of complaining about Washington’s bureaucracy when it comes to the building of new transit lines would come to an end with this step.
The bill also would eliminate the use of the FTA’s existing cost-effectiveness index, which effectively uses the number of hours saved by new riders to rate projects for consideration. The FTA would have to “weigh all benefits comparably” by incorporating land use and environmental effects into the process. While this is an important step towards encouraging the development of transit systems from the perspective of creating livable communities, Washington needs an effective method by which to judge the economic benefits of a project; simply accepting all “benefits” as equally relevant seems rash. The FTA may need to develop a new cost-effectiveness index, but eliminating the evaluation entirely would be inappropriate.
The outline as proposed yesterday doesn’t address the most important dilemma: how to replace the declining revenue source that is the gas tax. Nor does it effectively counter the mounting efforts by Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood and some in the Senate to simply delay the transportation reauthorization to next year. As I said yesterday, Mr. Oberstar’s project will be on life support from the very beginning. So while this draft would represent a significant improvement over the current transportation bill if implemented, its actual realization seems unlikely. Let’s see what we hear from the Senate over the next few weeks.