Capitol Comments

On May 22, 2013, Illinois became the fourth state since March where the legislature has sent a bill to the governor’s desk either ordering or permitting a speed limit increase on some roads.  Governor Pat Quinn has been coy on the measure but the overwhelming support by the legislature would seem to make the initiative veto-proof. Ohio, Iowa and Maine have all passed similar measures since March and 34 states already have speed limits of 70 miles per hour or greater on some roads. With initiatives working through the North Carolina and Nevada legislatures and with bills being introduced in at least eight more states, it appears more of America’s roadways will permit higher speeds. States raise speeds on some toll roads, like America's fastest road, as an inovative funding mechanism and congestion measure. Higher speeds are sold to the consumer as a premium service.  Some question the timing of and rationale for these actions, coming as recently released preliminary traffic fatality analysis data for 2012 from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration showed a 5.3 percent uptick in motor vehicle fatalities nationwide. But a review of the research on speed and safety isn’t as cut and dried as one might think.

In a presidential memorandum issued on May 17th 2013, President Obama continued what has been an administration-long focus on reducing the length of time necessary to acquire approval for federally funded infrastructure projects. The President has made this focus on moving rapidly from application to construction a cornerstone of his economic policy, believing that these projects could help return Americans to work while rebuilding American infrastructure. The President expedited funding for “shovel-ready projects” in the American Recovery & Reinvestment Act of 2009 with an eye on the health of the construction sector. A Federal Highway Administration program called Every Day Counts, a 2012 executive order and the federal highway bill the President signed last year also sought to lead the way in accelerating project delivery.

States can expect a major shakeup of the leaders who will guide the nation’s transportation policy in the months and years ahead. The long-awaited replacement for U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood has finally been found and the democratic leadership in the House may be reconfigured. Moreover, this week’s passing of Senator Frank Lautenberg and what happens with his seat could rock the balance of power in the Senate. All of these changes will have implications for transportation policy as Congress must soon sit down to craft the successor to MAP-21, the 2012 federal surface transportation authorization bill. 

We may have overlooked a key demographic shift as we stumbled into the 21st century. At some point in the prior decade, poverty in the suburbs began to grow at a faster rate than poverty in central cities. The number of suburban poor grew by 64 percent between 2000 and 2011; that’s more than double the rate for cities. This new, dispersed poverty offers some fresh challenges for policy makers. Being away from the bustle of the city was always the point of suburban living but this creates a unique transportation barrier as the poor are now  farther away from their jobs and traditional programs which serve them.

Last week’s “Traffic Volume Trends” report by the Federal Highway Administration showed that Americans drove 3.7 billion miles fewer in the month of March than they did in the same month a year ago. This isn’t an anomaly.  Also last week, the US Public Interest Research Group (US PIRG) and the Frontier Group jointly released a report entitled “A New Direction: Our Changing Relationship with Driving and the Implications for America’s Future” that said such declines are part of a trend that is likely to continue. That trend, the report says, throws into question whether transportation planning and public policy accurately reflect America’s changing transportation preferences and priorities.