Retooling transportation policy

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The existing federal transportation funding structure often acts as an impediment to our future. We need to turn it around and make it into an enabler.” –Martin Sabo, co-chairman of the National Transportation Policy Project and a former U.S. Congressman

I’ve previously written about the efforts of the National Transportation Policy Project (NTTP), forged by the Bipartisan Policy Center (BPC), to significantly retool the over-arching federal policies that guide (and, more importantly, fund) how roads, highways, bridges, and multitude of other pieces that make up the U.S.’s transportation infrastructure.

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A speech by one of the NTTP’s co-chairs reminded me last week that, even though Congress has put off voting and further work on the $500 billion “highway bill” that guides transportation spending, there’s a desperate need to chart a new course on how, where, and why all that money gets spent.

As my boss, Editor-in-Chief Jim Mele, so brilliantly noted in his monthly column back in October (no harm in praising the boss, is there??!!) there are an awful lot of fingers and special interests in the pie that is transportation funding these days – which ends up leading to all kinds of inefficiencies and waste when it comes to transportation infrastructure.

That’s why straightening out the policies that eventually guide the implementation of the highway reauthorization bill – whenever that occurs – is so critical, noted Martin Sabo, co-chairman of the National Transportation Policy Project and a former U.S. Congressman from Minnesota, in speech on this subject last week in his home state.

“Existing national transportation policy fails to recognize and reward innovation,” he said. “Funds are typically distributed with little to no analysis of their potential costs and benefits. This system, combined with insufficient funds to even adequately maintain our existing infrastructure, results in a transportation system that is losing effectiveness, directly impacting our nation’s global competitiveness.”

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[To view video clips of Sabo's remarks, click here and here.]

The structure of the current federal transportation program makes it hard to use federal funds to advance regional and national goals, and also fails to encourage adequate planning on a metropolitan or regional scale, said Sabo – making it challenging for metropolitan regions to use federal money to solve their transportation problems.

“The current federal transportation law expired on September 30th and is now operating under extensions of current law until a new bill can be passed,” he added. “We have an important, timely opportunity to reshape federal transportation policy to providing state and metropolitan regions maximum flexibility to spend federal transportation dollars in a way that advances national goals.”

Without rehashing all the details of the NTPP’s plan for reforming surface-transportation policy – a report released back in June, dubbed Performance Driven: A New Vision for U.S. Transportation Policy – Sabo boiled it down to three key points:

• Agree on clear national objectives for spending federal transportation dollars;

• Develop measures to evaluate whether these national objectives are being advanced; and then

• Adjust funding to reward good performance with respect to those measures.

“This is a common-sense approach, but one that will be challenging to execute,” Sabo said. “But it could not be more important to our economy, safety, environment, and even national security.”

Perhaps this last comment is a tad over the top, but I think Sabo nailed the fundamental issue here: transportation is a major beam providing support to the U.S. economy, and needs to be treated as such; not in a piecemeal, pork-barrel fasdion. So it’s past high time that we try to reshape the policies driving how we maintain, expand, and fund our transportation networks in this country so we end up with as highly efficient a system as possible, while keeping both initial and long term costs under tight control.

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