Two weeks ago, Congress came within a whisker of shutting down the nation’s highway and transit programs and furloughing thousands of federal employees. Only after a highly partisan debate was the Senate able to reach agreement on another extension to the Transportation Equity Act of the 21st Century (TEA-21) that will keep these programs functioning—at least for another two months.
And what happens then?
Senate and House leaders are supposed to conference soon to hammer out the discrepancies between their TEA-21 reauthorization proposals. This they will do under the cloud of the threat of a presidential veto.
But the differences are not arguments over policy. As far as Washington is concerned, transportation is all about the money—how much and who gets it.
The Senate’s $318 billion bill, after all, is $30 billion more than the House has proposed—which is another $30 billion more than the White House offered a year ago. And that’s essentially the debate, which so far has been a fight about pork, not principle.
Yet this is bad news for disgruntled commuters and businesses. It is particularly bad news for the metropolitan areas where most Americans live and work and where almost all meaningful traffic congestion occurs.
The sad fact is that the national transportation system is broken and in dire need of fundamental reform. That is why billions and billions of dollars of additional federal investments, without significant reform, will do precious little to ameliorate the transportation problems of the modern metropolis.
Right now, the federal surface transportation law does as much as any cluster of programs to influence the spatial form and social fabric of our cities and suburbs. Most notably, a growing body of research based on actual investments clearly shows that major highway projects do not necessarily create new jobs or spur economic growth so much as shift economic activity around a metropolitan area. The result is that cities and older suburbs frequently look on helplessly as commercial strips decline and infrastructure crumbles as growth follows new public investments out to the suburban fringe. That is why the extension and expansion of highways truly is what the late Daniel Patrick Moynihan called it: part of the federal government’s “hidden” urban policy.
For this reason, the nation desperately needs a frank and vigorous debate over the future of transportation policy. Encompassing more than just concrete and pork, such a debate should try to answer three basic questions:
Question #1: Who is in charge of transportation decisions? Current law puts state departments of transportation in the driver’s seat on transportation decisions. Yet metropolitan areas (many of which cross state lines) are the places where most Americans live and work. But even so, metropolitan areas make decisions that dispose of only about 10 cents of every transportation dollar they generate even though local governments within metropolitan areas own and maintain the vast majority of the transportation infrastructure.
In view of that, Congress badly needs to overhaul the governance of transportation programs, recognize the primacy of metropolitan areas, and align the geography of transportation decisionmaking with the geography of regional economies, commuting patterns, and social reality. To this end, it should build on reforms in the 1990s and devolve greater responsibility and resources to metropolitan entities. These institutions are, after all, in the best position to use transportation funding in tandem with land use, housing, workforce, and economic development policies. At the same time, the new policy should require state decisions to be tied more closely to the demographic and market realities of metropolitan areas and the vision and priorities of metropolitan leaders.
Question #2: What solutions fit the transportation challenges of the modern metropolis? The current system’s approach to transportation solutions is narrow and outmoded. Most state transportation departments, for example, still believe they can build their way out of congestion. Yet congestion is a product of many factors—low-density settlement patterns, employment decentralization, shifting consumption patterns, and market restructuring. That’s why study after study shows that building more is not the best strategy for reducing congestion.
Congress, therefore, needs to move beyond transportation-only solutions. Federal law made some efforts, mostly ignored, to integrate transportation decisions with local and regional decisions on land use, housing and economic development. Those efforts should be expanded. At the same time, the new law should encourage the greater use of market mechanisms—such as tolls and congestion pricing—to ease congestion on major thoroughfares at peak traffic times. The city of London is successfully experimenting with pricing schemes in its central business district.
Question #3: How do we make transportation decisions accountable? Federal transportation programs return more money to state and local governments than any other federal initiative involving physical infrastructure. Yet unlike other state and local bureaucracies that receive federal funding—such as state welfare departments, state education departments, and local public housing authorities—state transportation departments are held to few performance standards.
Since that is the case, Congress should move aggressively to hold all recipients of federal funding to a high standard of managerial efficiency, programmatic effectiveness, and fiscal responsibility. To that end, the new law should establish a new framework for accountability that includes tighter disclosure requirements, improved performance measures, and rewards for exceptional performance. Congress also needs to create a transportation system that is much more responsive to citizens and business. The more citizens and businesses inform transportation decisions, the better those decisions will be.
Change will not come easy to the transportation sector. The many deficiencies of transportation politics and practices are deeply rooted—in constituency and money politics, in state governance, bureaucracy, and in the history of metropolitan development. Cement and pork have become inextricable. Yet change has to come if we are going to have livable communities, competitive economies, a healthy environment, and fiscal responsibility.
Yogi Berra is purported to have said, “If you keep doing what you always did, you’ll always get what you always got.” Well, this summer the nation faces transportation challenges that will not be resolved by pouring more and more money into a broken system. Systemic reform is needed and probably will only happen if transportation policy is vigorously debated in the public realm.
Lacking that debate, Washington is stuck with a choice between three clunker pieces of legislation because neither Congress nor the White House gets it:
It’s not how much you spend, but how you spend it.