Transportation Policy Academy Pt. 8: Transportation for America’s James Corless

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. James Corless is the Director of Transportation for America, a coalition of over 400 organizations working to promote a new national transportation policy. During his remarks to policy academy participants, Corless discussed the uncertainty surrounding the future of the federal transportation program, the need to focus on performance measurement and system improvement and how the federal role in transportation is likely to change going forward.

Prior to Transportation for America, Mr. Corless was a senior planner for the Metropolitan Transportation Commission in the San Francisco Bay Area where he managed the agency’s efforts to promote smarter growth, transit-oriented development and mobility options for low-income communities. Mr. Corless was the author of California’s groundbreaking Safe Routes to School law and legislation that paved the way for smart growth “blueprints” to become part of the regional transportation planning process throughout the state.

Here are some excerpts from Corless’ remarks:

Uncertainty About the Federal Program

Corless: “The one thing we do know: there’s never been more uncertainty about federal transportation policy than there is right now. And I think … that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It is a bad thing if you’re wondering exactly what your allocations are going to be at the state level for the next couple of years. I understand that. But if we’re talking about the future of the program, it may not be a bad thing. The question is what happens in the next 12 to 24 months.”

Need for a Performance-Based System

Corless: “I think in the transportation community we have to own up to the fact that we have done a pretty poor job in general of telling people what they are buying for their money. And I say that as somebody who believes we need to invest more in transportation. But as a former transportation planner, I can tell you the biggest question that came from the feds or U.S. DOT or (FHWA) was really ‘how much money did you spend last year?’ And I think that’s a major problem we’ve got to grapple with.”

“Moving towards a more cost-benefit, performance-based transportation analysis and planning framework is not easy … It is a very difficult thing however we’re going to have to do it I think … And frankly reinstall some of the public trust in the system. So we are moving, whether we like it or not—and I think we should like it—towards a more quantitative, cost-benefit, performance-based transportation system. And the more you’re doing that at the state level and understand how we grapple with this, the better.”

“I think that part of how we do that—how we move to a more performance-based system—is actually by reforming and really turning upside down the transportation planning process … I think a more integrated planning process where we are doing more performance measures, we’re being more transparent, where we’re looking at infrastructure transportation but we’re also looking at growth patterns … If we don’t begin to coordinate and integrate land use plans at the regional level with our transportation infrastructure planning, we are all screwed.”

De-emphasizing Projects, Focusing on Systems

Corless: “I think we have been far too focused on projects in transportation for good reason, whether it’s earmarks or whether it’s mega-projects, we’re going to need projects. But we have never actually thought enough about systems. And really what we’re talking about is trying to figure out how we make our systems work better. In some cases that’s going to mean building new projects. In many cases it’s going to mean fixing the crumbling stuff we’ve already built. But it’s also going to mean things like intelligent transportation systems, making better use of technology, operational improvements, and understanding how these systems function as a whole. We tend to silo all these things in terms of roads and transit, in terms of state, regional and local, in terms of drivers and people who pay user fees and people who don’t. We are now blending this system more than ever before and even things like the Census and the ACS—it still kind of kills me that we are not getting a better snapshot that people use many, many transportation modes throughout the day, throughout the week, throughout the year.”

“I am very in tune with this idea about the enhancements program at the federal level. [Editor’s note: Some members of Congress have sought to eliminate funding for federal transportation enhancement activities. These include pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure and safety, scenic and historic highways, landscaping and scenic beautification, historic preservation, and environmental mitigation.] I can just tell you though that we have got to pay attention to walkable, livable communities …  I believe that the demographic shifts, the people who are 30 and younger in this country are looking for the kinds of places whether that’s big cities, suburbs or small towns—they’re going to have to compete against each other for the knowledge economy when we get out of the recession. And they’re going to be looking for places that are walkable, that have bike-sharing programs, that have public transportation. That doesn’t mean we should make ineffective investments but it does mean that part of the future is about these integrated systems that go everything from freight and freeway interchanges all the way down to ‘can I get two miles from home to work and can I get a bike or walk or take the bus.’ So, systems vs. projects: very important.”

Future of the Gas Tax

Corless: “The gas tax is on its last legs …If we wanted to we could raise the gas tax at the federal level. I know some states have done that. But if you look at the fuel economy standards in 10 or 15 years and figure out who’s paying the gas tax and who’s not, it’s unsustainable. So we’ve got to figure out a different way to pay … Personally I would put some of my money on a mileage fee, even though I know you poll on that now and it’s about less popular than Congress. But I do think that’s part of the solution.”

Federal Role in Transportation

Corless: “We just can’t rely on (the federal government) to create a sustained, formula-based source of transportation investment and funding … And that doesn’t mean that the feds won’t be involved in transportation. I believe they will be. I believe we’ll actually save the federal program. But it does mean that we’re going to have things like the TIFIA program (Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act), where the feds are going to loan basically, they’re going to get into different financial instruments and more innovative financing techniques.”

“I think when we talk about things like mass transit, we are going to be seeing things like … what we call value capture, which is looking at transit lines and understanding the increment of value we’re inferring around surrounding properties, the importance of the development of those properties to make those transit lines function, that we get jobs and housing and services. But capturing some of that increment that is conferred by that investment, whether that’s federal, state or through a regional sales tax, we have got to begin thinking in those more innovative ways. While that’s going to be turbulent over the next one, two, three, four years, I actually think there is opportunity in that turbulence.”

How State Legislators Can Sway Congress to Act

Corless: “I think it is really important right now … to have (members of Congress) really understand … what the federal investment means for your home state—the stuff that you understand and you know … We’ve got a lot of members of Congress who weren’t around for SAFETEA-LU. They have no idea. And one of the most effective things I’ve seen is people coming in, believe it or not, with their TIPs, their Transportation Improvement Programs, and highlighting in yellow marker all the things that have federal investment on them. Here are the things that have been built and here’s the things that could get built if we get a robust or at least a flat-funded federal transportation bill. That sounds simple. I can’t tell you how many people have actually been shocked, who are freshmen members of Congress or weren’t around for SAFETEA-LU—that as many projects … actually have that kind of federal investment. I think if you can translate that for folks whether here on Capitol Hill or by doing events and getting them to go out and see things and see projects back in your home districts, your home states. Have them get excited about it … It is an uphill climb trying to get members of Congress excited about this stuff. But they’re never going to get excited if they don’t actually believe that they’re going to leave a legacy. If they can’t do that through earmarks, they’ve got to do it basically through policies and programs and by not cutting the federal transportation investments.”