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Why we are no longer advocating for Congress to increase transportation funding

Since our inception in 2008, Transportation for America has always primarily advocated for reforming the federal transportation program. But raising the gas tax or otherwise raising new funding overall has also been a core plank of our platform since 2013. With the release of our brand new policy platform and principles coming this Monday, Transportation for America is no longer asking Congress to provide an increase in money for federal transportation program. Why?

Picture of Bellevue, WA light rail construction

For as long as I’ve been working in transportation and probably longer, the debate surrounding the federal transportation program has been a one-note affair: a never-ending fight over who gets money and how much money they get. Those who get money want more flexibility to spend it however they want. Those who get a little money want a bigger piece of the pie. And then both political parties come together in a “bipartisan” way to grow the pie and keep everyone happy.

This two-dimensional debate always leaves out an urgently needed conversation about the purpose of this federal transportation program. What are we doing? Why are we spending $50 billion a year? What is it supposed to accomplish? Does anyone know anymore?

Nearly seven decades ago we set out with a clear purpose: connect our cities and rural areas and states with high-speed interstates and highways for cars and trucks and make travel all about speed. These brand new highways made things like cross-country and inter-state travel easier than we ever imagined possible. We connected places that weren’t well-connected before and reaped the economic benefits (while also dividing and obliterating some communities along the way).

We’ve never really updated those broad goals from 1956 in a meaningful way. We’ve moved from the exponential returns of building brand new connections where they didn’t exist to the diminishing, marginal returns of spending billions to add a new lane of road here and there, which promptly fills up with new traffic.

Why in the world would we just pour more money into a program that is “devoid of any broad, ambitious vision for the future, and [in which] more spending has only led to more roads, more traffic, more pollution, more inequality, and a lack of transportation options,” as I wrote in the Washington Post during Infrastructure Week?

What the program should be about is accountability to the American taxpayer—making a few clear, concrete, measurable promises and then delivering on them. The program should focus on what we’re getting for the funds we’re spending—not simply whether or not money gets spent and how much there was.

Does anyone doubt Congress’s ability to successfully spend money? We all have supreme confidence in their ability to spend hundreds of billions of dollars. Our question is whether that money can be spent in a way that accomplishes something tangible and measurable for the American people.

Taxpayers deserve to know what they’re getting for their spending. Today, they don’t, and nothing about the debate so far in 2019 with Congress has indicated that will change. So we’ve scrapped “provide real funding” from our core principles. T4America has concluded that more money devoted to this same flawed system will just do more damage.

Coming next week: our new principles

With the conversation about money put behind us, on Monday we’re releasing three new principles for what we expect this upcoming surface transportation bill to accomplish. We believe that whether Congress decides to spend more money or less, these three things should be paramount.

Every time federal transportation reauthorization comes up, we hear endless cries about the poor state of our crumbling infrastructure. How many bridges are structurally deficient, how poor our roads are, the long backlogs of neglected maintenance, the (severely inflated) costs of congestion, perhaps even a few voices about the alarming increase in people struck and killed while walking…the list of woes goes on and on.

And then, predictably, states, interest groups, members of Congress and others call for more money for the federal transportation program as the only logical solution, with no clear promises made for how this money will solve any of the problems outlined above or precisely what will be better or different after five years of spending yet billions more.

So let’s stop limping along and spending billions with an unclear purpose and marginal returns. We need a clear set of explicit goals for the federal program. We’ll be back here on Monday as we unveil our principles.

See T4America’s new principles and outcomes for federal transportation policy >>

 

16 Comments

  1. Richard May

    1 year ago

    Congratulations. Sometimes it is hard to see the forest for the trees, but you have made the right decision.

    Looking forward to your new initiatives.

  2. M. Smith

    1 year ago

    Good Day Beth Osborne,
    Your policy change, to drop an increase in transportation funding, is music to the ears of a few fiscal conservatives and some moderates (myself included). Funding policy needs a priority change at both federal and state levels.

    Soon the local MPO (transportation funding) board here will decide to vote upon a “roll forward” program sponsored by the state DOT which includes ramp and interchange additions for less than seven (7) miles of an interstate highway at over $4.03 billion. Another interstate route, highly congested I-95, will see toll lane additions at a cost of over $58 million per mile during three years of construction.

    Meanwhile, the nearly parallel regional commuter rail line announced fare increases (To lessen travel demand?) for the service. Its rail coaches (some of which are not disability compliant) and some of its locomotives are now thirty (30) years old, To compare, Germany has cut it ticket tax by one-half for travel by rail both to lessen auto traffic congestion and for environmental reasons.

    It is time to give priority funding to passenger travel by rail: high speed, conventional inter-city and commuter. At present, funding for NEW tollway lane mileage lessens money for maintenance on existing streets and roads. Again, funding priorities need to change (10-04-2019).

  3. Michael Smith

    1 year ago

    Good Day Beth Osborne,
    Your policy change, to drop an increase in transportation funding, is music to the ears of a few fiscal conservatives and some moderates (myself included). Funding policy needs a priority change at both federal and state levels.

    Soon the local MPO (transportation funding) board here will decide to vote upon a “roll forward” program sponsored by the state DOT which includes ramp and interchange additions for less than seven (7) miles of an interstate highway at over $4.03 billion. Another interstate route, highly congested I-95, will see toll lane additions at a cost of over $58 million per mile during three years of construction.

    Meanwhile, the nearly parallel regional commuter rail line announced fare increases (To lessen travel demand?) for the service. Its rail coaches (some of which are not disability compliant) and some of its locomotives are now thirty (30) years old, To compare, Germany has cut it ticket tax by one-half for travel by rail both to lessen auto traffic congestion and for environmental reasons.

    It is time to give priority funding to passenger travel by rail: high speed, conventional inter-city and commuter. At present, funding for NEW tollway lane mileage lessens money for maintenance on existing streets and roads. Again, funding priorities need to change (10-04-2019).

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  5. Mr. Transit

    1 year ago

    I hope the new policy includes lowering the federal share for new highway projects below the current 80%. The current high federal share means states don’t have to put very much skin in the game or prioritize their projects, they can just spend federal money. There should also be a uniform federal share across all project modes – transit, commuter rail, aviation and highways. New construction in all modes should require a higher percentage of local match than maintenance and repair programs.

  6. Irvin Dawid

    1 year ago

    Does Transportation for America oppose hiking the federal gas tax, unchanged since 1993? If so, I’m truly disappointed. If the gas tax isn’t increased, that just means more money will come from the federal General Fund to keep up transportation spending, i.e., your policy only ensures further subsidization of driving.

    According to the Congressional Research Service paper, “Funding and Financing Highways and
    Public Transportation,” updated June 7, 2019:
    “Every year since 2008, there has been a gap between the dedicated tax revenues flowing into the
    HTF and the cost of the surface transportation spending Congress has authorized. Congress has
    filled these shortfalls by transfers, largely from the general fund, that have shifted a total of
    $143.6 billion to the HTF…”
    https://fas.org/sgp/crs/misc/R45350.pdf
    What’s next for Transportation for America – opposing states from hiking gas taxes if you don’t like their investment policies? Where do you think those states will find the money to spend on roads?

  7. Teresa

    1 year ago

    As a resident of suburbia in an area where public transportation is virtually nonexistent, at times adding 5 hours of time to what should be a 1 hour commute round trip, I look forward to seeing your new initiatives. The work I do in the environment with species of concern, is seeing such drastic declines in population mostly due to roads and animal fatality by car. We are literally loosing entire populations at such a high rate that unless we make drastic changes to how we move as a people, our ecosystem will fall apart and eventually fail to support even us. We need major changes! We should not have such few options in transport that fail to serve the entire environment as a whole.

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  9. David

    1 year ago

    Well done. More can be accomplished currently with locally funded efforts than nationally funded efforts. From what I can see, Singapore has shown that congestion pricing is the medicine we need. It’ll force highways to compete with all other forms of transit and significantly increase demand for those more people friendly ways of getting from A to B. Please be brave enough to prescribe it!

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  13. Ethan Seltzer

    1 year ago

    Good start! And about time. But note that “fix it first” has proven to be a Trojan horse for more of the same. The problem, at least in part, is that we simply have too much that serves the wrong goals, and preserving it mindlessly is no answer. Time to dramatically redirect funding to modes that decrease carbon emissions, not for expenditures that keep them where they are. Please don’t fall for the so-called “common sense” of maintaining what we have. What we have IS the problem.

  14. Andy Singer

    1 year ago

    I think you should also mention the role of road building on increasing VMT and climate change …and how “Preservation First” policies in most states aren’t working …and how funding for HOV or FAST lanes has just opened up new revenue streams for state DOTs to build yet more roads. See– https://streets.mn/2019/04/09/why-you-should-oppose-a-gas-tax-increase/

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