Every six years or so, the U.S. Congress enacts legislation that allocates funds and sets the direction of America’s surface transportation systems. Beginning with the very first Federal-Aid Road Act of 1916, transportation bills have continued to shape our nation’s highway system, road network, and public transit. By 1978, Congress began to approach the federal transportation bill as a comprehensive set of investments that would carry over multiple years. While everything under the bill was still divided by transportation mode (transit, highways, roads, etc.), Congress understood it needed to lay out a longer-term strategy to address the country’s transportation needs.
The current program, SAFETEA-LU, expired in October 2009. As legislators in Washington work to craft a new federal surface transportation bill (known as T4), the Metropolitan Planning Council (MPC) and regional and national partners are seizing the tremendous opportunity to advocate for reforms necessary to attack gridlock and advance competitiveness and livability. The time is right to institute a comprehensive, multimodal planning model to build, maintain and finance the nation’s future transportation network.
The Highway Trust Fund, supported by an 18.4¢ federal gas tax is the main source of funding for SAFETEA-LU. Gas tax revenues for the first eight months of fiscal year 2008 were $2 billion less than the same period in 2007, requiring Congress to infuse an additional $8 billion. As Americans continue to rid themselves of gas guzzlers and drive more fuel-efficient vehicles, less frequent trips to the pump will mean even less money going into the nation’s Highway Trust Fund. The country needs a new, reliable revenue source to fund transportation improvements that commuters and employers desperately need. Oregon’s experiment with a vehicle miles tax showed that 91 percent of participants preferred to pay the mileage fee in lieu of the gas tax. In addition, participants changed their travel patterns and eliminated non-essential car trips, and used other forms of transportation to save money. Oregonians travelled fewer miles, leading researchers to conclude that congestion pricing greatly influences driving behavior. Policies such as the vehicle miles tax should be studied further as potential revenue sources.
MPC offers three overarching principles that ground a re-examination of how America plans for and invests in its transportation assets.
Spend transportation dollars smarter.
Today’s transportation spending is based on arbitrary formulas and divided into isolated silos that fragment road, highway, transit, rail, bike, and pedestrian investment decisions. Freight is completely ignored in the mix of dedicated funding. Transportation is an interdependent network, and needs to be funded accordingly. Projects that advance coordinated regional goals and are part of a national vision should be prioritized and evaluated based on their benefits. Because there is a limited supply of federal dollars, projects should be evaluated on their ability to help regions leverage their competitive advantages, improve environmental health, reduce hours spent stuck in traffic, and provide job opportunities near housing and transit. The criteria should not be about how much is spent, but how it’s spent. Smarter spending leads to goal-driven investments, rather than simply spending.
Maximize the use of existing transportation resources.
With needs outweighing available resources, the next federal transportation bill must maximize the use of existing transit, roads, bridges, and freight rail. In addition to maintaining the infrastructure already in place -- job number one-- the next federal transportation package must reward actions that squeeze more capacity from current transportation facilities. T4 must encourage innovative tools such as congestion pricing, high-occupancy lanes, and bus rapid transit to maximize the use of concrete that’s already been laid, by increasing capacity, improving safety, reducing emissions, and incenting new alternative modes of transportation.
Reduce the demand for future transportation resources.
Transportation accounts for one-third of the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions. That’s one compelling reason why we must develop strategies that reduce the need to drive. During rush hours across the country, more than 76 percent of all drivers are commuting alone. Many of these commuters are forced to drive because either they don’t have an accessible transit alternative or cannot afford to live near their work. Strategic policy reforms -- such as providing developers with incentives to build mixed-use villages near transit stations or implementing employer-assisted housing programs to encourage homeownership near transit-- can begin to reduce the number of vehicle miles traveled, thereby curbing congestion and reducing the amount average Americans have to spend on housing and transportation. Simple and inexpensive improvements, such as bus shelters, bicycle parking, or clearer travel information can help create a more attractive and inviting environment that encourages people to consider alternative modes of travel.
Transportation should not be an end in itself. Instead, transportation investments should be used to further the ultimate goal: to expand travel options and to reduce demand for driving. When priority is given to projects that connect housing and mixed-use development; create cleaner, better, and more inviting places to walk, the benefits are visible, measurable, and very compelling.
The ongoing congressional debate on T4 offers the best opportunity to change America’s surface transportation policy to improve our global competitiveness and improve community livability and sustainability. By spending precious tax dollars smarter, maximizing the use of dollars already spent, and reducing the demand for costly new investments, we can improve quality of life, clean the air, and generate much-needed economic development. We urge Congress and the Administration to embed these principles in T4.
For more information, please contact:
Metropolitan Planning Council