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April 16th, 2009
The No. 13 Line
Reauthorization 2009: The Year of Transportation

This is our year. Infrastructure is no longer just a word thrown about by policy wonks and engineers. The public, and more importantly politicians, have made public works, especially transportation, a front and center issue. The White House brings a fresh outlook on transportation policy and land use decisions – US Department of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has recently announced his “2-foot NM” rule which would require all business trips by US DOT workers of less than two miles to be made on two feet. Already, President Obama’s American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (known to most as the Stimulus Package) provided approximately $46 billion directly to transportation and much of that to green transportation. And, just as we’re beginning to put that money to use, we’re also beginning to launch into high gear on the reauthorization of the Federal Transportation Bill. The reauthorization will provide a longer-term strategy for building up an innovative, sustainable transportation policy.

The 2005 Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act: A Legacy for Users (SAFETY-LU), the current authorization of federal transportation policy included $287 billion in approved funding and expires on September 30, 2009. We strongly urge legislators to act quickly on reauthorization to avoid further injuring our financially-strapped transportation system. They must also “think big” (say $500+ million big) and think wisely and efficiently.

The new administration clearly talks a good game when it comes to sustainable transport; reauthorization is the perfect opportunity to “walk the talk.” But, it’s not just a matter of money – transportation investments can be constructive, or destructive, to our nation’s resources. Poor funding decisions can also increase our dependence on foreign oil which affects, in turn, foreign policy. Where and how we spend is key to a sagacious program. In short, we must rely less on cars and trucks and more on rail and bus. We must live closer to where we work and be able to walk, bike or take transit there. We must end our culture of “consuming a gallon of gas to buy a gallon of milk.”

We were pleasantly surprised to find $8 billion in the stimulus bill for high-speed rail. Reauthorization should quintuple that number to spark at least five and maybe 10 high-speed rail corridors. It should be noted that China is spending over $1 trillion on high-speed rail, the largest public works project in the world next to President Eisenhower’s Interstate Highway System. Our goal is to make rail between large cities competitive with air travel for short-haul trips of less than 500 miles. This would reduce our carbon footprint and increase efficiency at overloaded airports. The United States rail system should also be strengthened to accommodate a much larger share of freight traffic. Rail is more energy-efficient than trucks and one freight train can potentially remove 200 trucks from the highway system.

Current transportation policy allocates much of its funding to Departments of Transportation (DOTs). But as most DOTs are run at the state, rather than at the city level, the objective of the DOT is generally to efficiently move people between cities. And besides the rail initiatives discussed above, this typically means investment in highway infrastructure. Very few cities actually have their own DOTs. However, approximately 80 percent of Americans currently live in metropolitan areas. Therefore, there should be a much greater emphasis on providing funding for efficiently moving people within cities. But even the city DOTs that do exist are bound within the physical city limits. The new transportation bill should establish funding and authority at the regional level to ensure that all metropolitan areas modernize across city borders to incorporate the full range of transportation modes. Further, each regional transportation planning entity should be required to establish a clear statement of objectives and be accountable.

Building highways in cities should be the option of last resort. Cities should be offered “highway diet” subsidies to not invest in new roads but rather reduce car use through approaches like congestion pricing and improved transit. Instead of just a few hundred million being offered nation-wide for congestion pricing as done in the recent past, we suggest $10 billion that would be used to incentivize cities to make major modal shifts away from highways. We suggest this be cost-neutral by reducing highway investment by $10 billion. (Frankly, as long as it’s cost neutral the cap could be way higher).

In terms of public transportation, the reauthorized federal transportation bill should encourage more competition in mode selection. For example, BRT is now competitive with light rail in terms of environmental impacts, speed and capacity at a third the cost. A new “New Starts” program (the federal funding vehicle for many light rail projects) needs to be revamped to reflect the reality of 2010 technologies.

Finally, U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood and Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, Shaun Donovan, have already been in discussions over possible linkages between transportation and housing policies. This could include locating affordable housing near public transportation, connecting existing housing communities with transit services, or building shorter street blocks to facilitate walking. We believe that there should be provisions in the new bill to encourage such links.

The 2009 reauthorization of the existing transportation bill should recognize the importance of sustainable transportation both within and between the country’s metropolitan areas. It should provide funding and authority to regional transportation planning entities with a focus on changing existing modal splits. Our reliance on the interstate highway system for short-haul passenger or freight trips needs to change. We should shift our mid-haul trips from air to rail. Within urban areas we need to expand the use of BRT for high-quality mass transit. We must understand both that transportation affects where we live and work and that where we live and work affects transportation. Overall, we must reduce driver-only travel, curtail our reliance on foreign oil, and change our day-to-day behavior. Only a multi-agency approach can achieve a multi-modal society.

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