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Call for Wholesale Reform, not Just Reauthorization, of Transportation Bill

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Photo by cindy47452.

The National Transportation Policy Project of the Bipartisan Policy Center today released its final recommendations calling for comprehensive reform of the U.S. surface transportation bill, which expires at the end of September.

The recommendations were gathered over two years from a group of transport experts, transit users and political leaders. Basically, their report claims our transportation policy has lost its way and needs a sense of direction. The current system is strained to capacity and growing increasingly congested. We need a major overhaul. More specifically, “U.S. transportation policy needs to be more performance-driven, more directly linked to a set of clearly articulated goals, and more accountable for results.”

(The full report, titled, “Performance Driven: A New Vision for U.S. Transportation Policy,” is available for download here.)

GENERAL OVERVIEW:

In general, there are five overarching goals for transportation policy and investment:

1) Economic growth
2) National connectivity
3) Metropolitan accessibility
4) Energy security and environmental protection
5) Safety

To measure how policies, programs or investments achieve these goals, the NTPP proposes a suite of “performance measures” related to economic growth, energy and environment, and safety. In order to receive federal funding, programs must be successful across all of these metrics:

1) Access to jobs and labor
2) Access to non-work activities
3) Network utility
4) Corridor congestion
5) Petroleum consumption
6) CO2 emissions

NOTES FROM THE PRESS CONFERENCE:

Some of the more sweeping reforms include the following proposals, as expressed by the NTPP co-chairs and keynote speaker Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA) during this morning’s press conference:

Transport funding should be channeled toward the best projects, regardless of whether they are road, rail or transit (NTPP calls this “mode-neutral.”) At this morning’s press conference, Warner expressed his support for this, emphasizing that “we need to get out of the silo approach to transport funding.”

Because no timetable has been set for the reauthorization of the bill (even though the NTPP report pushes for a lot of “date-certain” measures), Warner suggested first trying out the NTPP’s proposed metrics on the multi-modal transportation programs that are already slated for $1.5 billion from the stimulus package. (Some “beta testing,” he called it.)

Former Senator Slade Gorton said it’s going “very unlikely” for Congress to reauthorize the bill with NTPP’s input by September 30, so in the interim, we should work on “developing good precise data and metrics of measuring success.”

Mayor of Detroit Dennis Archer says current policy is too prescriptive – deciding how and what areas must spend funding – so he hopes for a greater “bottom-up approach” where states and cities have maximum flexibility to achieve national goals.

Another finding: There is a strong need to generate revenue based on performance. This way, dollars will automatically be delivered to the most needy, worthwhile projects.

Revenues could be generated through direct, user-based fees, for example, moving away from the gas tax and considering options like charging commuters for vehicle miles traveled. Or carbon pricing (if legislation for some sort of carbon program is eventually passed.)

Former Congressman Martin Sabo said these types of economic considerations “gives the user some evidence of the true cost of transportation.”

Former Congressman Sherwood Boehlert pointed to environmental arguments. “There is no recognition of the important link between transport investments, energy security and climate change,” he said.

In response to these challenges, the NTPP was launched to bring “new ideas and a bipartisan approach” to a proposal for comprehensive reform. For the first time ever, the bill would link funding to performance, as well as include energy and environmental considerations (namely, measuring petroleum consumption and CO2 emissions.)

HOW TO MEASURE AND ENCOURAGE ACCOUNTABILITY?

As Boelhert says, “We need to change the old way of doing things” by setting goals, measuring progress, and creating a system of accountability.

One way to do this could be through robust and open information technology.

Sen. Warner touched on one online tool that has the potential to not only gauge the progress of federal transport projects, but also to promote more transparency. He calls it a “real-time active dashboard,” (formally known as VDOT Dashboard v.3.0) a system he implemented at the Department of Transportation in Virginia that displays online information about performance, safety, finance and other measures for specific state transportation projects.

Rather than just measuring the amount of asphalt laid down or vehicle miles traveled, Warner says, VDOT now has proof of real results. What’s more, about 90% of projects are meet budget and time goals (only a few years ago, the percentages were drastically lower.)

Warner admitted: “It’s not that hard to do.” So why not take it national?

NOTES FROM THE PANEL:

To quote some of the discussion:

Joshua Schank, Director of Transportation Research for the NTPP

Our nation’s economic vitality depends on the how quickly and reliably people can access jobs, labor and other activities, hence the need for greater connectivity.

There’s a need to redefine the national transportation system — afterall, it’s not just about highways.

Also, the federal government should support and supplement state funding, especially if states demonstrate that they are collaborating with other regions across jurisdictional lines.

Nancy Kete, Director of EMBARQ

Transportation contributes to one-third of greenhouse gases in the United States. And the country is entirely dependent on oil. This situation is not sustainable from an economic, national security, or environmental perspective.

It’s going to take a lot more than CAFE standards and ultra-low sulfur diesel to create real change.

(Kete also issued a formal press statement, available at the World Resources Institute Pressroom.)

Robert Puentes, fellow, Brookings Institution Metropolitan Policy Program

In the absence of federal leadership, we’ve seen a lot of innovations happening outside of Washington. We should continue o look for innovation and best practices that are coming out of states and metro areas.

The federal government should get out the way. It needs to be empowering:

Federal highway, rail and transit programs all have different rules and regulations. It makes it difficult for states and metros to make decisions. Therefore, let innovations and good ideas flourish out there.

Tyler Duvall, Assistant Secretary for Transportation Policy

For the transportation bill to be effective, it’s got to be a lot more tarteted and specific than what we have today. We need the data to implement this approach.

Focus on areas of country where the crisis is most urgent.

Incentives clearly matter to state and local decision makers.

We need a couple champions, for example, Congressman Petri and Sen. Warner.

Congressman Tom Petri (R-WI)

It’s a wonderful thing to spend billions of dollars on renewing rail transport, but it’s still 19th century technology. Meanwhile, in the private market…my wife insisted I take the Vamoose bus to New York. Tickets are between $1 and $40. It’s clean, there’s Wi-Fi, the drivers are neat. It’s a wonderful experience. This is where the market is leading us.

We should look at states, and the local and municipal sector, as our clients, and encourage their innovation to get greater use out of existing system.

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