Women in Government Conference Focuses on Sustainable Transportation and Better Communities

Last week I had the pleasure to speak at a conference on sustainable transportation hosted by the organization Women in Government in Newport, Rhode Island. Thirty-two state legislators representing 20 states attended the forum and heard from a number of distinguished experts on such topics as federal and state transportation funding, complete streets programs, commuter transportation, community design and integrating transportation networks to improve mobility and spur economic development. Here’s a rundown of what participants heard at the conference along with some links to resources that may be useful in setting your state’s sustainable transportation goals.

Principles for Good Transportation Policy

The forum began with an address by Brian Simpson, a member of the European Parliament who chairs the Committee for Transport and Tourism. Simpson told participants that Europe and the United States can learn a lot from each other, particularly in the area of rail transportation. While Europe has made passenger rail a great success, the U.S. has traditionally had more success with freight rail. Simpson also outlined a number of principles that any good transportation policy should incorporate. They include:

  • Sustainability– Simpson said that would include tackling such issues as “climate change, emissions, fossil fuel reliance, safety and operational integrity… and congestion.”
  • Innovation– For Simpson that means “technology-led transportation systems, real-time information, electric and fuel cell vehicles, better satellite navigation and the need to keep transport research high on the agenda in this time of budget cuts.”
  • Integration– Here Simpson highlighted the need for inter-modality and through-ticketing (being able to buy one ticket and use it on different modes of transportation). “Why can’t we have that kind of system in every major city or state?” he pondered.
  • Accessibility– “Accessibility is about bringing transport to all,” he said.
  • Interoperability– Simpson said one key to this is harmonizing laws at the federal and state levels and among states. “When I’m told there are still states in the United States that don’t have seat belt laws, it does get me to thinking ‘why?’” he said.
  • Efficiency– “Efficiency is about running on time, it’s about comfort, it’s about better planning and it’s about better use of the logistics chain,” Simpson said. “We have to make transport attractive for people to use—be they freight operators or be they the individual passenger. If you do not make it attractive, they will head straight back to the fortress that is their private car. That leads to other problems like congestion and environmental issues.”

Simpson also cited one other important facet of good transportation policy: cooperation. He said that includes cooperation between public and private, between local and state, between state and federal and between transportation planners and users.

He also had some advice for the politicians in the audience.

“We really do need to look beyond the parochial and local interests and to look beyond the next election,” he said. “We have to think more long term. We have to think less parochial and more global if we are to succeed.”

Using Transit-Oriented Development to Reconnect America

Also speaking at the Women in Government conference was John Robert Smith, who for 16 years served as Mayor of Meridian, Mississippi. He’s now President and CEO of Reconnecting America, a Washington, DC-based non-profit that works on integrating transportation systems and the communities they serve. The organization forms partnerships with cities and emerging transit corridors around the country and advocates for more transit-oriented development. Smith said investing in transit and transit-oriented development is important because:

  • It’s key to regional economic competitiveness and meeting new demographics;
  • It creates jobs and access to job opportunities;
  • It lowers the cost of living for individual households;
  • It spurs reinvestment in struggling communities and revitalization of industries; and
  • It benefits the environment and sensitive natural areas by focusing investment.

Smith said his organization is also working hard to ensure that the next authorization bill for federal transportation programs, the successor to SAFETEA-LU, is multi-modal and forward-looking.

“We want to have an impact and see that the next transportation authorization bill is transformational for this country and it’s visionary,” he said. “It’s not just asphalt and concrete. Highways are important, yes, but it’s rail and it’s transit and it’s bikes and it’s streets.”

Barbara McCann of the National Complete Streets Coalition and John Robert Smith of Reconnecting America

States Making Strides to Complete Streets

Speaking of streets, the Executive Director of the National Complete Streets Coalition Barbara McCann also spoke at the forum. Complete streets, according to McCann, are those that are “safe, comfortable, and convenient for travel for everyone, regardless of age or ability—motorists, pedestrians, bicyclists and public transportation riders.”

Unfortunately there are still many streets around the country that are incomplete and unsafe. More than 40 percent of pedestrian deaths in 2007 and 2008 occurred where no crosswalk was available, McCann said. Moreover, one quarter of walking trips take place on roads without sidewalks or shoulders and bike lanes are still only available for about 5 percent of bicycle trips. And while 55 percent of Americans say they would rather drive less and walk more, 72 percent of trips of one mile or less are driven, perhaps due at least in part to limitations of the built environment.

But many states and communities are trying to do something to change all that by implementing complete streets policies that ensure that the entire right of way is planned, designed and operated to provide safe access for all users. A total of 141 jurisdictions (including states and localities) have such policies on the books and 121 have been adopted just since 2005. Nine states have considered legislation this year and seven others considered bills last year. A number of other states also have internal policies at the agency level.

McCann said complete streets policies should do several things:

  • Set a vision
  • Include all modes
  • Emphasize connectivity
  • Apply to all phases of all applicable projects
  • Specify and limit exceptions
  • Use the latest design standards
  • Be flexible
  • Be context-sensitive
  • Set performance standards
  • Include implementation steps

Enacting an effective policy should also prompt a state or local transportation agency to take several actions, McCann said, including:

  • Restructuring procedures, policies and programs;
  • Rewriting design manuals or standards;
  • Offering training opportunities to planners and engineers; and
  • Creating new performance measures.

Outlook for Reauthorization: “Bleak”

Transportation finance and funding priorities were next on the agenda in Newport. Participants heard from Amy Scarton, Majority Counsel for the U.S. House Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee on Highways and Transit, who provided an update on the status of the successor to SAFETEA-LU.

“The view from Capitol Hill is not rosy right now,” she said. “I would describe it as bleak.”

Scarton said a bill offered last year by her boss, House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman James Oberstar, is still the only game in town.

“He made a commitment to the American public, to the state DOTs, to you folks that he would get a bill done before the current authorization expired—and he did that,” Scarton said. “We spent three years in our subcommittee holding hearings on all the various needs of the system. We produced a bill and we marked it up last year.”

The U.S. Senate has been slower to move on a new authorization bill, though the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee is said to be writing one. But Scarton reserves some of her ire for the Obama administration.

“This administration—I’m not sure honestly if it’s ‘yes we can’ or ‘no, we can’t,” she said. “They won’t raise our taxes, they’re not talking about tolling or congestion pricing. The only thing so far they’ve talked about is borrowing money.”

The administration has expressed support for the creation of a National Infrastructure Bank, but Scarton said that doesn’t add up to a complete funding plan.

“We need a comprehensive package to move us forward and right now there’s only one bill out there and it’s (Oberstar’s) and it’s now a year old.”

Scarton outlined some highlights of the Oberstar bill including provisions that streamline, simplify and consolidate existing programs. She said there are too many programs at the federal level and that states need to have more flexibility in setting spending priorities. She discussed bill provisions creating national freight improvement and metropolitan mobility and access programs. Scarton also emphasized the importance of exploring alternative forms of funding, incorporating livability principles and re-thinking environmental review processes.

Michael Sanders of the Connecticut Department of Transportation and Amy Scarton, Majority Counsel for Subcommittee on Highways & Transit

Transit Finance System is Broken

Michael Sanders shares Scarton’s pessimism about the lack of action on Capitol Hill on a new authorization bill. Sanders is Transit Administrator for the Connecticut Department of Transportation.

“We really need to look at the revenue sources and that’s really I think the biggest problem that Congress is having,” he told the Women in Government conference. “Nobody really wants to figure out how to double the revenue stream into the transportation program, which is about what it would take to do (Oberstar’s) bill.”

Transit funding faces the same issue that highway and bridge funding faces: an eroding and dwindling revenue source, Sanders said.

“The transit program is about 80 percent funded from the Highway Trust Fund and the Highway Trust Fund gets its money from gasoline taxes,” he said. “Taxes haven’t been increased in 17 years… Probably 50 or 60 percent of our purchasing power has been lost because the gas tax wasn’t even indexed to inflation. So the federal role is shrinking, the infrastructure is crumbling and at the same time we haven’t even put an inflation-adjusted gas tax or some kind of other user fee in place to help us keep that infrastructure maintained.”

One positive sign Sanders sees around the country is a willingness on the part of voters to pass ballot initiatives that raise taxes if they are given assurances that revenue will go towards improving infrastructure.

“Maybe there is a will for people to be taxed a little bit more if they know what they’re getting is leading to good economic development and sustainable growth to your economy and a sustainable system,” he said.

Policy Options to Encourage Improved Design & Planning

Afternoon speakers at the Women in Government conference included Ellen Dunham-Jones, a Professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology and co-author of the book Retrofitting Suburbia, who talked about how states can work with communities to foster sustainable design and planning.

Dunham-Jones offered policy recommendations for state officials in four areas: transportation design, economic development, transportation planning and sustainability.

Among her recommendations for transportation design:

Among her economic development-related recommendations:

  • Ask the governor to appoint a special assistant for metropolitan economic development, as Governor Ted Strickland in Ohio has done, or set up an office of smart growth, as then-Governor Parris Glendening did in Maryland in the 1990s.
  • Adopt an asset management strategy to make the most of existing communities and investments before supporting new ones and recognize the under-investment in older suburbs.

Among her policy recommendations related to transportation and planning:

  • Require coordination of state agencies’ investments according to regional plans that lay out conservation areas and development areas in relation to transportation plans.
  • Require state agencies to use an index of the combined cost of housing and transportation in screening applications for housing, economic development and transportation investments. This is what Illinois has done with Senate Bill 374, the Housing and Transportation Affordability Index Act, which was signed by the Governor earlier this year.
  • Adopt the Sprawl Repair Act or piggyback it onto existing legislation as Florida did.

Among her recommendations for transportation and sustainability:

  • Support reform of Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) responsibilities to implement the integration of transportation planning with the principles of livability agreed to by federal agencies.
  • Require MPOs’ comprehensive and transportation plans to include Vehicle Miles Traveled-based greenhouse gas projections as required in California by AB 32, SB 375 and the California Air Resources Board.
  • Incentivize compliance with LEED-ND (a neighborhood development rating system that integrates the principles of smart growth, urbanism and green building) for developments of regional significance.

Also speaking at the Women in Government forum were Julie Bond, a Senior Research Associate at the University of South Florida’s Center for Urban Transportation Research, who discussed how legislators can support commuter transportation policies and programs; and Robyn Boerstling, Director of Transportation and Infrastructure Policy at the National Association of Manufacturers, who discussed what state legislators can do to support integrated transit systems and spur economic development.

Further Reading on Sustainable Transportation

As for my own presentation to the group, I touched on many of the issues above and highlighted what many states are doing in these areas. In the area of funding, I discussed how while many states are relying on bonding and leftover Recovery Act funds to finance transportation projects this year, a handful were able to put together major infrastructure improvement programs. I also discussed other important trends in transportation finance, many of them detailed last month in an article for the Capitol Ideas E-Newsletter. Some states are still hoping public-private partnerships may be part of the funding solution and I wrote about that in our new Capitol Research brief on P3s. I spoke about states investing in electric car infrastructure as detailed in our newly released Capitol Research brief on Green Transportation. I spoke about state complete streets policies, as also detailed in the Green Transportation brief. I discussed state efforts in smart growth and transit-oriented development as I detailed in both the May-June issue of Capitol Ideasand our earlier Trends in America brief on Sustainable Communities. I spoke about how states are seeking to reduce greenhouse gas emissions through better land use planning, as detailed in the Trends in America brief on Climate Change and Transportation, the aforementioned brief on Sustainable Communitiesand the May-June Capitol Ideas article. Finally, I outlined how states are also seeking to reduce GHG emissions through improving the efficiency of the transportation system, as I detailed earlier this year in our Capitol Research brief on Intelligent Transportation Systemsas well as the brief on Climate Change and Transportation.

I would encourage those who may be interested in sustainable transportation to scan these CSG publications for some policy ideas that may work in your states and to look further into the ideas offered by my fellow speakers at the Women in Government conference.