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Here’s how the new House bill prioritizes getting people where they need to go

It’s surprising, but the current federal transportation program doesn’t actually require that states spend federal funds to improve people’s access to jobs and services. This is why the bulk of transportation funding goes to increasing vehicle speed, a “goal” that fails to help many people get where they need to go. The new transportation proposal from the House of Representatives fixes that with a powerful new performance measure and grant programs. 

The House transportation committee is marking up and voting on the INVEST Act this week. View our amendment tracker here, get real-time updates by following @t4america on Twittervisit our hub for all T4America content about the INVEST Act, and take action by sending a message to your representative if they sit on this House committee.

There’s a reason why Transportation for America’s third principle for transportation policy is to connect people to jobs and services, because instead of measuring transportation success by how many jobs and services people can get to, our current federal transportation policy considers how fast cars can drive on specific segments of road.

Here’s how a new performance measure and grant programs in the House’s five-year INVEST Act would start to focus transportation funding on what counts: getting people where they need to go.

The current approach is broken

To determine if you had a successful trip, you probably think about getting from point A to point B and how long that trip would take. But transportation agencies don’t measure success that way: they instead measure whether or not your vehicle was moving quickly at some point of the trip. Whether or not you actually arrived isn’t measured. This metric of “success” ignores those who can’t or don’t drive, take transit, or are mobility impaired. This doesn’t mean drivers are loving life either though: they may be able to go fast but still feel trapped in their car for too much of the day to get to the things they need. Vehicle speed isn’t a good measure of whether or not people can conveniently access the things they need in their daily lives.

We think it is time to consider how well the transportation system provides access to jobs as well as all other necessities, from the grocery to the bank to school and health care. Access is not only a much better measure, areas with high accessibility allow people to access opportunities and necessities even if they’re not able to afford to drive alone. So this measure captures whether our communities provide equitable access to opportunity, allow for healthy and active living, and contribute less to greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions as well as pollutants that harm public health.

And now, the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure brought this important concept into their vision for the future of the nation’s transportation program .

How this game-changing performance measure works

The INVEST Act creates a new performance measure that requires project sponsors to improve access to jobs and services by all modes. While seemingly minor, this marks a huge shift in how transportation funding would be allocated—especially because project sponsors will be penalized if they fail to use federal funding to improve access. The Virginia Department of Transportation has been doing this successfully for years, but this type of performance measure has not been tried across the nation yet and has never been attempted at the federal level before.

Under the INVEST Act, states and MPOs must consider whether people traveling (not just driving) can reach jobs, schools, groceries, medical care and other necessities. And they will be penalized if they fail to use federal funding to improve that access.

New grant programs will also support this approach

The INVEST Act authors know that transportation doesn’t exist in a vacuum: housing plays a huge role in how many jobs and services people can access. Putting housing (and especially attainable housing) close to transit is a powerful way to increase access to jobs and necessities. That’s why the bill requires the Federal Transit Administration to create the Office of Transit-Supportive Communities to provide funding, technical assistance, and coordination of transit and housing projects within the U.S. Department of Transportation and across the federal government. Further, this proposal adds affordable housing into the planning considerations for metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs) and state DOT Transportation Improvement Programs, as well as for future transit capital grants.

The new Community Transportation Investment Program also solidifies the importance of access as a measure of success to the federal transportation program. The INVEST Act authorizes $600 million per year for competitive grants to localities and agencies for projects which improve safety, state of good repair, access to jobs and services, and the environment by reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. This requires the Secretary of Transportation to develop a system to objectively evaluate projects on program criteria, and develop a rating system which can be used to compare the benefits and costs of each application—as with Virginia’s Smart Scale program.

How these policies will actually improve the transportation system

Measuring access—not vehicle speed—puts transportation projects, regardless of mode, on an even playing field. Technologies like GIS and cloud computing makes it easier for states and MPOs to determine whether their system is connecting people in residential areas to jobs and services by all means of travel. With this information, project sponsors can consider all kinds of transportation projects and all transportation users equally. States and MPOs can also see when it is more cost-efficient to build the things people need closer to them, rather than defaulting to building expensive, new transportation projects to make far away necessities less inconvenient to travel to. With this, we can create more equitable access to economic opportunity, lower transportation costs, and reduce emissions and the damaging climate and health impacts of them.

The federal transportation program as we know it was largely created to increase vehicle speeds across the country, connecting the nation through a network of highways. Now that those highways are built, and we thoroughly understand the consequences of speed—both in terms of loss of life and failure to improve travel times and cost—it’s time to use technology to connect federal funding to the transportation outcomes we need. We’re pleased to support this new performance measure and accompanying grant programs in the INVEST Act.