Transportation for a Metropolitan Nation

October 25, 2007


There is no question that in the wake of the Minneapolis bridge collapse, reports of ever-increasing congestion, and new concerns around climate change, our nation’s transportation policy has suddenly been thrust into the national spotlight. This infrastructure epiphany is long overdue.

The United States is currently undergoing a transformation of dramatic scale and complexity comparable to what it experienced at the beginning of the last century—another period characterized by the radical reshaping of the American landscape.

Massive demographic, economic, and social changes are already having major spatial effects on the nation. But rather than dispersing randomly all this population and economic activity is shifting and re-aggregating in major metropolitan areas, both domestically and internationally. These forces are restructuring the American economy and are revaluing the assets of the cities and urban cores within metropolitan areas.

In short, we are a metropolitan nation. Supplier networks and customer relationships are regional rather than local in nature. Labor markets and commuting patterns cross jurisdictional and state lines. Firms make decisions on location and expansion based on regional advantages and amenities. Metropolitan areas are where most Americans live, work, and produce the majority of the nation’s economic output. The services and revenues they generate drive state economies.

Just the 100 largest metropolitan areas claim more than 65 percent of our population, 75 percent of our most educated citizens, and 75 percent of our national economic output, driving and dominating the leading edges of our economy: technology, business, finance, and professional services. They are also our immigrant gateways, our ports of trade – truly our centers of knowledge and innovation.

Unfortunately, our nation’s transportation policy does not recognize the primacy of metropolitan areas and – I would argue – on net actually undermines these vital places. Yet for the nation to thrive, our largest metropolitan areas must thrive. This is a lesson long understood by foreign competitors in Western Europe, South America, and now in Asia. The rest of the world understands these assets but in the U.S. metropolitan areas remain hidden in plain sight.

This blunt criticism stems from the fact that our national government takes a bloated and outmoded approach to the realities and challenges of the modern metropolis and, by extension, to the economic competitiveness of the nation. Today the major transportation debates are all around money: spending more and more on the same product rather than where, on what, and how to spend that money better.

The sad fact is that now that the Interstate Highway System is completed there is no coherent national vision for addressing a complex and conflicting set of transportation challenges. As a result, America’s transportation policy is adrift with no clear goals, purpose, or ability to meet these challenges.

The federal government appears to lack a theory of its role and is absent or agnostic when it comes to where highway funds are spent. Fuel taxes feed the highway account of the transportation trust fund which is distributed to states without any kind of purpose, oversight or accountability. Nor are the funds tied to any goals such as keeping bridges in good repair, mitigating the rise in congestion, improving air quality, or connecting workers to jobs and education.

Mr. Chairman, I sincerely believe additional transportation investments are needed to bring the nation’s infrastructure up to date for the 21st century. But my overall theme is that the discussion about surface transportation needs and the budget should start first with a clear articulation of the goals and objectives of the federal program, and the desired outcomes. The program should then be structured to get to those outcomes. Only then should additional revenues be considered. This is consistent with the goals for fiscal discipline and responsibility expressed by this committee.