Transportation Policy Academy Pt. 6: Bipartisan Policy Center’s Emil Frankel

In October 2011, CSG hosted an invitation-only Transportation Policy Academy in Washington, D.C. for a group of 11 state legislators from around the country, many of whom serve in leadership positions on transportation-focused committees in their states. In addition to providing an opportunity for these state leaders to meet with their members of Congress about the future of transportation policy, CSG also invited a group of policy experts, public officials, advocates and observers to speak to the group about the policy landscape, what may lie ahead for states in transportation and what some states are doing in the absence of federal action. In the interest of sharing their insights and expertise with a broader CSG audience, this series of blog posts will feature extended excerpts from their remarks on a wide variety of transportation policy issues. Emil Frankel is the Director of Transportation Policy for the Bipartisan Policy Center and an independent consultant on transportation policy and public management issues. During his remarks to policy academy participants, Frankel discussed the politicization of transportation policy, the future of transportation funding and why the federal program is ripe for reform.

In June 2009, BPC’s Transportation Project, under Frankel’s leadership, issued its report and recommendations,Performance Driven: A New Vision for U.S. Transportation Policy.Frankel was assistant secretary for transportation policy of the U.S. Department of Transportation from 2002 to 2005. Appointed by President George W. Bush, Frankel played a key role in the coordination and development of the administration’s proposal to reauthorize the Federal highway, transit, and highway safety programs. He also provided policy leadership in such areas as intermodal freight transportation, reform of the nation’s intercity passenger rail system, transportation project financing, and the application of information technologies to transportation systems operations. Frankel’s previous positions include commissioner of the Connecticut Department of Transportation, principal consultant to the international engineering and consulting firm Parsons Brinckerhoff, visiting lecturer at Yale, joint fellow at Harvard, special assistant to the Under Secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, and legislative assistant to U.S. Senator Jacob K. Javits of New York.

Here are some excerpts from Frankel’s remarks:

Transportation & Politics

Frankel: “Something that’s really changed quite dramatically I think over the last few years is that transportation is now all caught up in the politics of this city—in national politics and not only national politics but state and local politics. It used to be that (the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee) in particular and (the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee) as well had this long tradition of bipartisanship. The majority worked with the minority, whoever was in the majority and minority. They always worked together to frame bills.”

“We’re not going to get long-term economic renewal and health and prosperity in this country … until we invest in our infrastructure. And yet, it’s very hard to imagine a long term bill being enacted in this Congress.”

“The political reality is that we do need more resources for investment in infrastructure… There are examples at the state and local levels of bond issues and dedicated taxes being adopted when they’re tied to specific projects. So there is some hope with that kind of a regime at the state and local level. But at the national level, there is no appetite whatsoever for increasing revenues and increasing the pie. And I must say, it’s very hard to imagine in this fiscal environment.”

Future of Transportation Funding

Frankel: “We actually had a workshop in March at which we talked about long-term sustainable funding and one of the things we looked at is should (transportation funding) be general funding in part or in full? European countries have high gasoline taxes but they flow to the General Fund and transportation is there competing with education and health and everything else and actually they do reasonably well in getting investments (in transportation). But I cannot imagine this happening in the current fiscal environment we have, quite the contrary.”

“While it’s in some ways promising that the Speaker (of the House John Boehner) has talked about trying to find other sources of revenue for resources for the surface transportation program, what they put on the table is politically contentious—royalties from new domestic sources of energy, drilling off-shore, drilling in federal lands in Alaska and other places. So in a sense politically it’s probably a non-starter … It (also) wouldn’t generate enough money, wouldn’t generate any money for 10 years, certainly not a tax. So again, it’s kind of caught up in the politics here. It’s also money that everybody competes for.”

“We’ve got to move towards targeting investments. We need to move away from projects to comprehensive, strategic programs at the state and local level.”

Federal Role in Transportation

Frankel: “We’ve really lost our way in terms of the national surface transportation program. It is a program that lacks goals and purposes.”

“We can’t do everything anymore and I think that’s going to require us to look at and redefine the federal interest. There are things that are done under the federal programs which maybe we can’t afford to do, that maybe were appropriate at a time when the pie was getting bigger and bigger… If there is legislation, it will be the first time in 30 years? 50 years? that the program has not grown.”

“The federal government should be prescriptive about the purposes, the goals for which federal funds are to be utilized, but permissive about the design of the programs. It should be up to the states or MPOs as the case may be to design the programs. And what the federal government should be looking at is ‘does your program make progress toward achieving these national goals?’”

“I think the most important thing we can accomplish in this political and fiscal environment is reform. It has been said over the last few years that reform needs to accompany adequate funding. In my own mind, I’m thinking we need to get the reforms. Maybe that will create a basis in the long run for greater public trust in the federal programs. Because we’re certainly not going to be very successful in the short run in increasing the size of the pie.”

“There’s a greater need for reforms in the national program. There’s an urgent need. Because what we basically need to do is be able to have the capacity to make better decisions at all levels. That also requires major reforms at the state and local levels … MPOs and state agencies do not really develop strategic capital investment programs where funds are targeted to the most important and beneficial projects, where they look at returns and do benefit-cost analyses and establish priorities and so forth. That for the most part is not occurring. That’s not good public policy at any time but certainly in this environment of fiscal constraint and scarce resources. It is totally unacceptable. It’s more important than ever that we focus the resources that we do have on the projects and the programs and the activities that can bring the greatest results.”