How does the new transportation bill draft measure up?June 24, 2009
By Stephen Lee Davis
|“A bill to transform Federal surface transportation to a performance-based framework to reduce fatalities and injuries on our Nation’s highways, address the mobility and access needs of people and goods, improve the condition, performance, and connectivity of the United States intermodal surface transportation system, provide transportation choices for commuters and travelers, promote environmental sustainability, public health, and the livability of communities, support robust investment in surface transportation, and for other purposes.”|
That’s how the new 775-page draft of the House Surface Transportation Authorization Act of 2009 opens up. Considering that this is federal legislation here — not literature — that’s a pretty lofty opening to guide the upcoming six-year transportation bill.
But does reality match the rhetoric in the 774 pages that follow?
|Read the official T4 America statement on the bill draft|
First, Chairman James Oberstar is to be commended for releasing a draft bill that goes beyond just reauthorizing a modified version of the existing transportation law (SAFETEA-LU). There are some real signs of change in this bill and transportation reform advocates across the board are encouraged by the overall language and direction of the bill. Compared with the opening paragraph of the last bill (Wait, there were no opening principles!), STAA is off to a great start.
While there are principles and vision in the introduction about performance, connectivity, environmental sustainability, public health, livability; reading the fine print in the legislation leaves unanswered questions and areas of concern — such as how funding will be allocated among programs. Most obvious, as others have pointed out, is the omission of dollar amounts for specific programs, formulas and sources of funding. A final verdict on this draft won’t be complete without knowing answers to the funding questions.
|“Having individual programs that work better is certainly a step in the right direction, but it is absolutely critical to be sure those programs work together towards achieving a set of national objectives.”|
|— James Corless, T4 America|
Once you dig into the fine print, it becomes clear that although individual programs are assigned certain goals and performance measures, there are no clear, cross-cutting, national performance targets for measuring the success or failure overall of such a massive investment.
Though Americans are overwhelmingly supportive of spending money on infrastructure and transportation — and can even get behind increased taxes to do so — that support generally comes with the caveat that they want to know we’re buying something useful, and not just spending twice as much money to do more of the same.
With a price tag between $450 billion and $500 billion for this transportation bill — almost twice the cost of the last bill — it’s more important than ever to have positive answers to some big-picture issues. That’s why we need to ask some critical questions about this legislation: If the bill got passed:
- Would more Americans have low-cost, convenient travel and living options?
- Would more Americans have easier access to jobs?
- Would older Americans have more options for aging in place and low-income households have more affordable transportation choices?
- Would fewer Americans die or be injured, whether while driving, walking, bicycling or taking transit?
- Would we be able to reduce emissions and cut energy use while still providing choices for getting from A to B?
- Would America be able to continue competing economically on the world stage?
Here is a quick look at some of the positive things in the bill, and some that need improvement or are sorely lacking. Keep in mind that these are in flux and can be improved with even small changes to language of the bill. The funding levels that are to be determined will also have a major impact in where these different issues ultimately stack up.
Continue reading below the fold to see a short breakdown of the good, the needs-improvement, and the missing elements.
Positive features of the draft bill
- Critical Asset Investment Program. This program creates a substantial, dedicated funding stream for maintaining roads and bridges and will not allow states to divert those funds to highway expansion projects. The bill also requires transit agencies to show how they are maintaining their systems in a state of good repair. How large this program is remains to be seen.
- Simpler, more streamlined programs. The bill streamlines federal transportation policy by eliminating or consolidating 75 of 108 existing federal programs into several core areas, and proposes a streamlined process for projects and approvals.
- Greater Local Control. More money would flow directly to metro areas, increasing their authority and ability to plan transportation projects, and the bill requires extensive planning from metro areas, with some detail on performance targets and enforcement mechanisms to ensure that they meet goals.
- A Stronger rural voice. Rural areas get a bigger say in state-level transportation decision-making.
- Transit New Starts projects. Eliminates the “cost effectiveness” index that made reducing travel time per dollar spent the top criteria for funding eligibility. The bill proposes that the many benefits of a new transit project be considered, also streamlines project delivery. (Read our post on New Starts here)
Areas in need of improvement
- Livability. The bill is heading in right direction by prioritizing investments in neighborhoods where people can bike, walk, take transit or drive, and affordable homes can be found near transit stops and job centers. But the Office of Livability can’t just be an isolated initiative in the Federal Highway Administration; it needs to be a fundamental part of how localities qualify for all transportation funding. The office needs more money and authority, and should cut across agency boundaries to promote a more integrated system.
- Public transportation. The total funding levels for for transit increases from 18 to 22 percent to nearly $100 billion over the life of the bill, but T4 America believes this money should be a funding floor that could increase with more flexibility — not a ceiling on how much transit will receive. In a truly mode-neutral scenario, whatever project and mode gives us the best bang for our buck and helps us meet (the missing) performance targets would be funded. There is some money that can be “flexed” to transit, but there isn’t much direction or performance criteria, and the structural biases that prevent this flexible money from being easily spent on public transportation still exist in the legislation. Transit agencies should have some discretion in using federal funds to sustain operations and quality service.
- Clean transportation and the connection to climate change. The bill gives a nod to having transportation do its part on climate protection, but there are no real teeth, no hard targets for reductions, and no clear priority given to projects that can help reduce emissions.
- Metro Mobility and Access. The creation of a new Metro Mobility and Access Program is a move in the right direction, and would supply more resources to help large metro areas address their most pressing transportation needs. But the goals are mostly about moving cars, and there isn’t any focus on improving land use and transportation demand to reduce congestion and improve access. However, the program will sub-allocate money to metropolitan planning organizations, and any money that flows directly to local communities is an improvement.
Critical missing, transformational elements
- Goals, performance targets and accountability. Having individual programs that work better by themselves represents progress -– but having programs that work in harmony towards achieving a set of national objectives is critical if we are going to be successful in moving to a truly integrated, intermodal national transportation system. The bill does have ample language on developing complicated measures and statistics for some programs — but if they don’t feed back into concrete national targets with accountability, we’ll just have a truckload of meaningless statistics.
- Freight. The requirement of a freight plan inclusive of truck, rail, ports, etc., is positive. However, the funding appears to be aimed only at expanding highway capacity for freight, missing the opportunity to explicitly make freight transport by rail a priority.
- Blueprint planning. While an earlier outline of the bill showed real promise on helping states, local and regional agencies conduct long-term planning to address their transportation needs while integrating them with housing, land use, and economic development issues, the full legislation falls short on the details. Moreover, without incentives or details for more funding to help meet the extensive planning requirements included in the bill, the language on blueprint planning raises more questions than answers.
- Land use. There’s nothing substantive to provide incentives to coordinate land use and development with transport so people have more options to live in walkable, transit-accessible neighborhoods. Though very popular across the country with developers and localities — and highly in demand by consumers — the words “transit-oriented development” (TOD) appear only once in the bill.
- Equity and Affordability. Among the four E’s (economy, environment, energy and equity), equity seems to have gotten the least attention the bill. Severely underfunded programs for low-income, disabled and aging Americans were consolidated without any specifics on improving overall effectiveness or coordination or details on funding levels. The overall costs of housing and transportation, which place a severe burden on millions of Americans, were barely discussed in the bill, despite the focus on “livability.” Making sure that all Americans have safe access to affordable transportation choices should be a overarching priority of the bill.
- Workforce development. There is brief discussion of a National Workforce Development Council, but no provision as yet for workforce development in the highway portion of the bill, and no mention of green jobs. This is another area that could be quickly improved with specifics, funding, and clear guidelines for measurement.