Recognizing that passage of a six-year surface transportation funding bill is stymied by larger debates over deficit spending, taxation, and long term transportation needs, the Bipartisan Policy Center's (BPC) National Transportation Policy Project (NTPP) is urging Members of Congress to instead focus on crafting a more targeted short-term plan that only uses existing funding levels.

“We know there’s a need for more transportation investment, but we also know such investments are not practical now under the current fiscal circumstances,” Emil Frankel, the group’s director of transportation policy, told FleetOwner.

“The problem is we also have very scarce resources in terms of funding all our transportation infrastructure needs,” he added. “That will require a lot of tough choices to be made, so we focus these limited resources on projects that really benefit the national interest.”

Frankel said the group’s 2009 proposal, Performance Driven: A New Vision for U.S. Transportation Policy, forms the basis for its short-term plan, dubbed Performance Driven: Achieving Wiser Investment in Transportation.

The upshot of the NTPP’s “short-term framework” is that it would consolidate and scale back the existing federal transportation funding structure – shrinking 100 existing transportation programs into 10 core programs, reducing expenditures by $14 billion – and make it targeted toward a set of specific national goals, These would include economic growth, national connectivity, metropolitan accessibility, energy security and environmental protection, and safety.

It would also make transportation spending more sustainable by authorizing a program at existing revenue levels, and begin the transition to a performance-based system that is better able to leverage non-federal resources, Frankel noted.

To achieve its new programmatic structure, NTPP recommends:

  • Placing a greater emphasis on managing and preserving existing transportation assets
  • Creating a more robust, transportation planning process
  • Developing a National Freight Strategic Plan
  • Providing funding to incentivize performance

The group also is calling for greater leveraging of state, local and private funding sources to supplement constrained federal resources, the elimination of barriers to non-federal investment, and a restructuring of existing funding match requirements.

NTPP added that the reason it’s proposing this “short term” plan in part is because the nation’s surface funding transportation mechanism, formally known as the Safe, Accountable, and Flexible Transportation Equity Act—A Legacy for Users or “SAFETEA-LU,” expired in 2009 and efforts to pass a new one have repeatedly stalled over funding issues.

Democrat James L. Oberstar, former Chair of the House of Representatives’ Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, who lost his bid for re-election from his home state of Minnesota last year, while in office had proposed $556- billion worth of transportation funding paid for with a spate of new taxes and other fees.

Now, however, based on the policy direction being followed by the committee’s new Chair, John L. Mica (R-FL), no new taxes or fees will be added. According to C. Kenneth Orski, a public policy consultant and 30-year veteran transportation expert, it means transportation funding in the future will be limited to the revenues collected through fuel taxes – reconciling expenditures with revenues to make sure spending does not exceed tax receipts.

So, with the Congressional Budget Office projecting that fuel tax revenues should average about $38 billion per year, a six-year program could be funded at $230 billion – or about 6% lower than SAFETEA-LU’s levels, Orski said. And the BPC believes existing funds must be targeted to the most critical needs.

“The economic strength of our country is dependent on our ability to invest effectively in our transportation infrastructure,” said Dennis Archer, chairman emeritus for Dickinson Wright and a former Mayor of Detroit, in a statement.

“In the context of severe fiscal challenges and budgetary constraints, we need to make difficult choices and to consider trade-offs,” he explained. “But these constraints and limits can also provide us with the opportunity to accomplish significant programmatic reforms and to do more with less.”

Related: More video from Dennis Archer