Sean Slone

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High-speed rail continues to be a topic of debate in several regions of the country. Here’s a rundown of some of the developments in recent days.

I have a new Capitol Research brief out this week entitled “Rural Transportation Needs.” The concept for the brief evolved from a resolution our CSG Transportation Policy Task Force approved at the 2008 annual meeting in Omaha. One of the lines in that resolution reads “be it further resolved that the Council of State Governments supports a transportation authorization that considers the needs of both urban and rural areas.” That line, I believe, was an effort by our members to address what some at the time feared could become an urban bias in a fundamental reorganization of federal transportation programs under a new authorization regime. Three years later, that resolution is due to sunset later this year under CSG bylaws (we will likely endeavor to renew or revise it accordingly). There still is no agreement on a successor to SAFETEA-LU, which officially expired in 2009 and has been extended six times on a short-term basis. And a sea change has occurred in Congress not only politically but demographically. Republicans, who now control the House, made many of their gains in rural areas. That impacts what the expectations are for an authorization bill and what parts of the country are likely to benefit. But it is no less important to keep in mind the unique transportation needs of rural communities as the authorization debate resumes this year.

Next week, I’ll be in Washington, D.C. for the Transportation Research Board of the National Academies Annual Meeting, which brings together thousands of transportation professionals from some 70 countries to discuss all things transportation-related. With as many as 100 sessions going on simultaneously at any one time in three huge conference hotels, it’s easy to be overwhelmed by the choices. As I’ve learned from attending the meeting in 2009 and 2010, it helps to map out a plan in advance. Here’s a look at my tentative schedule of sessions and events along with some suggested further reading for those who may be interested. You’ll be able to follow me on Twitter (@CSGTransport) and here on the blog starting Sunday.

I’ve blogged before about how the governors of New Jersey and Virginia, both elected in 2009, are tackling transportation issues in their respective states. Now, Chris Christie and Bob McDonnell are back in the news this month with ambitious transportation plans. Meanwhile, newly elected Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback is proposing tapping transportation funds to prop up other government programs in his state budget. And as other states seek ways to finance improvements to their own transportation systems, a number of recent reports and developments put the focus on such mechanisms as public-private partnerships, congestion pricing and tolling.

The first half of January has already been full of news about federal transportation spending and how things may be different under new House leadership in the nation’s capital. The discussion continues about the potential impact of new House rules on the Highway Trust Fund and what a ban on earmarks may mean for transportation spending. Meanwhile, it appears there may be some movement afoot to tackle new legislation reauthorizing federal transportation programs this year.

Rural highways provide many benefits to the nation's transportation system. But rural areas face numerous transportation challenges including a looming highway capacity crisis. Their challenges are similar to those experienced by urban areas but different enough that they need to be carefully considered as officials in Washington debate a new long-term authorization of federal transportation programs. This brief examines some issues those officials should take into account regarding rural road capacity, congestion, road safety, connectivity and mobility and public transit. It also examines how policies addressing livability and transportation funding may impact rural communities.

The 2005 law authorizing federal surface transportation programs, known as SAFETEA-LU, expired in September 2009. Congress has authorized a series of short-term extensions but has yet to enact a new multi-year bill that is expected to redefine the nation’s transportation priorities. What Congress decides regarding federal transportation programs will determine state funding and policy needs. Among the issues states will be concerned with in 2011 are the condition of America’s infrastructure, the erosion of the gas tax as a funding source, finding alternative financing, adjusting to shifting federal priorities and building a 21st century transportation system.

As Congress and state legislatures convene this month, the debate over how to fund transportation in this country resumes. Stoking the fire this week is a U.S. House of Representatives rules change that could result in reduced federal transportation spending and a new report from the U.S. Public Interest Research Group that assesses the claim by highway advocates that roads “pay for themselves” with gas taxes and other charges to motorists.

With the holidays fast approaching, I thought it would be a good time to clear out the ol’ CSG Transportation inbox so that we can make a fresh start in the New Year. In doing so, I ran across a number of recent reports and news items that may be of interest and that may provide worthwhile reading should you have any downtime in between football bowl games in the weeks ahead. They address many of the themes we’ve examined here over the last year and look ahead to what might lay in store in 2011 on issues like federal transportation programs, the condition of America's infrastructure, gas taxes, highway finance alternatives, high-speed rail, freight transportation, transportation and the environment and intelligent transportation systems.

During the Council of State Governments' National Conference in Providence, Rhode Island, the CSG Transportation Policy Task Force hosted a roundtable discussion on December 5th looking at the impact of the 2010 election and what’s ahead for transportation in 2011. Here is a summary of what transpired.

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