Transportation Breakdown

Bruce Katz and
Bruce Katz Founding Director of the Nowak Metro Finance Lab - Drexel University
Robert Puentes
Robert Puentes Vice President and Director - Brookings Metro

May 14, 2005

Two years in the making, the federal transportation bill that was lumbering through the Senate this week toward a House-Senate conference has not aged well.

In March, House members congratulated themselves for coming to a bipartisan agreement to advance their version of the bill. As passed by the House, the legislative package calls for $284 billion over six years, representing the largest public works bill in our nation’s history. In voting for it, 417 House members echoed the conventional wisdom: praising the bill as a jobs-creating, economy-boosting, and congestion-easing panacea.

There’s only one problem: The conventional wisdom is wrong. The truth is the current bill takes an antiquated, anachronistic, and ultimately wasteful approach to transportation policy. It represents the result of a policy-free approach that is totally out of touch with the nature of the real transportation issues facing the country.

The House’s bill makes three fatal mistakes: It continues to pour more money into a broken system and makes no attempt at significant policy reform. It assumes that thousands and thousands of congressional earmarks, representing over $12 billion, somehow add up to a coherent, fiscally responsible national transportation policy. And it ensures that America’s federal program will function mainly as a Rube Goldbergian revenue generation and distribution system for the gas tax it collects.

All this adds up to one sad fact: After years of wrangling, and 18 months of delay, we are left with a national transportation policy with no accountability, no overall intent, and no chance to meet broader goals of economic growth and personal mobility. Passage of this bill will do little to stem the challenges that bedevil American families, workers, firms, and freight movers every day—increasing metropolitan congestion, increasing cost, and lack of choice.

The challenge now facing Washington is to get beyond how much money it should spend and focus instead on how that money will be spent and how that spending affects our nation. It is critical for Congress now to help articulate a new rationale for national transportation policy given the broad demographic, market, development, and social challenges facing the country.

Congress should consider five principles for transportation policy going forward:

Transparency. Congress should require states and metropolitan areas to disclose their programs and spending decisions in a transparent, accessible, frequent, and continuous manner. Incredibly, it continues to be easier for citizens to discern where private banks and thrifts lend than to determine where public transportation agencies spend.

Accountability. At a time of economic uncertainty and fiscal stress, transportation spending must be held to a higher standard of managerial efficiency, programmatic effectiveness, and fiscal responsibility. To that end, reform efforts should establish a new framework for accountability that includes improved performance measures and rewards for exceptional achievement.

Integration. Congestion is a product of many factors—dispersed development, employment decentralization, shifting consumption patterns, market restructuring, and accidents. Previous federal reform efforts led by the late Senator Daniel Moynihan made some efforts, mostly ignored, to integrate transportation decisions with local and regional decisions on land use, housing, workforce, and economic development. Those efforts should be expanded.

Metropolitan governance. Congress should recognize the primacy of metropolitan areas where eight out of 10 Americans live and align the geography of transportation decisionmaking with the geography of regional economies, commuting patterns, and social reality. To this end, it should devolve greater responsibility and resources to metropolitan entities.

Market dynamics. The mounting transportation pressures occur at a time of severe fiscal constraint, pervasive frustration with congestion, and increasing opposition to road expansion. As in Europe, this requires a firm national commitment to make maximum use of existing road capacity and expand transportation alternatives. Efforts for using state-of-the-art communications technology to encourage market approaches to congestion relief, including road pricing should be augmented.

Yogi Berra is purported to have said, “If I didn’t wake up, I’d still be sleeping.” The nation faces too many transportation challenges for Congress to remain asleep in its pursuit of a policy without purpose. It is critical to get federal transportation policy right, or not do it at all.