New Reports Lay Out Need for New Transportation Agenda

The U.S. transportation system lacks a coherent vision, is chronically short of resources, is costing the country dearly in lost time, money and safety and is compromising our productivity and ability to compete internationally. Those are some of the conclusions in a new report entitled “Well Within Reach” issued on behalf of a bipartisan panel of transportation experts who met for three days last year at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center of Public Affairs. While none of that is likely to be news to many, the report does offer a series of recommendations for a new transportation agenda that are worthy of consideration.

Among them:

  • Future transportation funding mechanisms should not depend primarily on fossil-fuel consumption. With electric cars and other fuel efficient vehicles coming to market, the gas tax in the years ahead is expected to continue to erode and become outmoded as a means of funding transportation investment. As other expert panels have concluded, charging Americans by the mile rather than by the gallon is the most promising long-term funding strategy. According to the report: “a fee of two cents per mile would generate the revenue necessary to support an appropriate level of investment over the long term.”
  • Future stimulus spending should be directed to those transportation projects that will deliver the greatest returns in terms of jobs, economic growth and future U.S. competitiveness.
  • Enhance the effectiveness of states, localities and metropolitan planning organizations and clarify their roles in transportation decision-making processes.
  • Adopt an integrated approach to transportation planning that includes freight and goods movement and stresses intermodal connectivity. Continuing to rely on highways alone to move goods and people is not a sustainable strategy.
  • Find more effective ways of reducing urban congestion.
  • Encourage public-private partnerships while also improving oversight of them.
  • Build a foundation for informed policy with better and more timely data to measure progress toward defined goals and objectives and to improve the performance of the nation’s transportation systems.

The report says that for more than a generation the United States has been leaning on its existing infrastructure assets and “new investments have not sufficed to adequately maintain existing infrastructure, much less to develop the additional capacity and cutting-edge technologies needed to improve the performance of the overall transportation system in the face of growing demand.” And while the system today provides significant aggravations to motorists, a potential loss of international competitiveness is what the country could be looking at if we stay on the same path we’re on.

Another report that came out last month makes clear the deterioration the U.S. transportation system is seeing. According to the national transportation research group TRIP (The Road Information Program), 24 percent of the nation’s major metropolitan roads have pavements in poor condition, resulting in rough rides and costing the average motorist $402 annually in additional operating costs. The TRIP report, entitled “Hold the Wheel Steady: America’s Roughest Rides and Strategies to Make Our Roads Smoother”, said that the lack of a long-term federal surface transportation program, which would provide a predictable level of federal funding, is impeding the ability of states to plan and implement large-scale rehabilitation and reconstruction projects. Such a national effort to repair rough roads could not only ease the burden on drivers and provide a smoother ride but also create jobs and boost the economic recovery by providing significant short- and long-term economic benefits, the report said.

That’s also borne out by last month’s report from the American Road and Transportation Builders Association entitled “The U.S. Transportation Construction Industry Profile.” That report showed that money invested this year in transportation construction industry employment and purchases will generate more than $380 billion in U.S. economic activity—nearly 3 percent of the nation’s Gross Domestic Product.    

But it’s not just the pavement conditions around the country that are a source of concern, it’s also the lack of capacity and the lack of transportation alternatives in many areas that creates congestion and bottlenecks and that causes significant delays for both personal and freight travel. The Miller Center report emphasizes that federal policy should be crafted to address these issues by encouraging land use that reduces single-occupant commutes and promotes more livable communities.

“Creating communities conducive to walking and alternate modes of transportation…should be an important goal of transportation policy at all levels of government,” the report said.

Last month, a study funded by the Rockefeller Foundation, cited land use as a major contributing factor to the traffic woes experienced by many American drivers. The study, released by the organization CEOs for Cities and entitled “Driven Apart: How Sprawl is Lengthening our Commutes and Why Misleading Mobility Measures Are Making Things Worse,” provides a new method for ranking metropolitan areas by commuting time. The 51 largest metro areas are ranked according to the amount of time residents spend in peak traffic. In some cases, the rankings differ significantly from those listed in the Texas Transportation Institute’s 2009 Urban Mobility Report, a commonly cited congestion measure.

The Miller Center report maintains that alleviating congestion, repairing roads and developing a 21st century transportation system are all goals that are, as the report’s title suggests, “well within reach.” But that doesn’t mean it will be easy.

“At a minimum, it will require clarity about the overarching objectives of federal transportation policy and an increased emphasis on efficiency, performance, and cost-effectiveness across all transportation programs,” the report said. “More generally, it will require an approach to transportation spending that emphasizes performance and return on investment—and that is correspondingly less driven by short-term political considerations and earmarks, which have proliferated in recent highway bills.”

Finding the money to pay for it all and finding the political wherewithal to accomplish it will be considerable challenges. It’s clear however that the nation could reap substantial benefits from the realization of such an agenda for transportation.