Too often, the debate over transportation funding in Congress revolves around dollars and cents. But many advocates say we should agree on big goals first, so we know what we’re getting for the money we spend.
Congress spends a lot of time trying to figure out how it should allocate money for infrastructure, but its members rarely articulate why they want to spend that money. There seems to be more discussion in Washington about the size of an infrastructure package—whether it should be $500 billion, $1 trillion or even $2 trillion—than what the public would actually see as a result.
The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, for example, earned plenty of praise last month for drafting a bipartisan bill that calls for spending $287 billion on highways and related infrastructure. That would be a 27 percent increase over current levels, which should please road builders and perhaps frustrated commuters. The bill also maintains the current methods for doling out that federal money, a victory for state highway departments, which would receive 90 percent of the funds. (The bill does not include spending for rail, transit or certain safety programs, and it does not identify a funding source, because, in Congress’ typical piecemeal fashion, those concerns are the responsibilities of other committees.)
But without clear goals, it’s hard to measure how well the legislation would achieve them. The package includes $10 billion to address climate change, a first for a highway bill. But is that enough to curb carbon dioxide emissions that heat the atmosphere? Or to make roads that can better withstand the increased flooding and extreme weather that climate change brings? How do we know if the highway bill is boosting the economy, as its authors promise, or reducing congestion? Is the current funding scheme the best way to achieve those goals?
These are questions that are all too familiar to state and local leaders.
“When it becomes a conversation [on Capitol Hill] about billions of dollars and engineering projects, we lose what this is about: Infrastructure is what improves the quality of our lives,” says Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti. “Bad infrastructure keeps us from our happiness, keeps us from our families, keeps us from jobs and, in the worst-case scenarios, threatens our health in our lives. Who cares how many miles of roads I can pave in L.A., if Venice Beach is underwater?”
As Congress considers such big-picture considerations this year, though, Governing will not be around to cover the debate. After three decades, both the magazine and the website will cease publication next month.
So, as we sign off, Governing asked prominent transportation leaders to offer their perspectives on what transportation goals the country ought to set. We asked them what obstacles stood in their way, and what Congress or other policymakers could do to help achieve those goals.
Fix Existing Roads and Bridges
Beth Osborne, the director of Transportation for America and a former Obama administration official, says Congress should try to cut the maintenance backlog of America’s roads in half. “Despite the rhetoric we’re sure to hear,” she says of the Senate committee’s proposal, “this bill has zero new binding requirements to ensure that states use their core formula programs to actually bring their roads and bridges into good condition." Instead, she says, it's a continuation of the status quo, "providing them with more than $32 billion more for existing road building policy.”
Congress, she says, could specify that highway funds must first be used to repair roads until a state has reached a certain milestone such as, say, lowering the proportion of roads that are in poor condition to 10 percent.
Road projects that add new capacity could be managed the same way that new transit projects are, she adds. That would mean that the state (or other project sponsor) would have to show how the new project addresses federal priorities, Osborne says. They would also have to show that they have a plan to operate and maintain the infrastructure throughout its useful life, and that they can maintain the rest of their system while adding the new project to their liabilities.
Some transportation directors think, however, think the fix-it-first mentality is unworkable. “The idea that we should take care of what we have and not build anything new is a great strategy if you are not growing,” says Maryland Transportation Secretary Pete Rahn. “The problem is, so much of our country is growing. The idea that a Texas or a Florida is not going to build anything [new] until their system is properly maintained is, frankly, unrealistic.”
Rahn works for Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican who is emphasizing infrastructure development during his yearlong stint as chair of the National Governors Association. In his home state, Hogan is pushing a plan to widen the Beltway and other major interstates in the Washington, D.C., suburbs using toll lanes and public-private partnerships.
Rahn says one of the top priorities for policymakers ought to be reducing traffic, both to improve the daily lives of drivers and to improve the country’s economy. “We can’t allow our systems to continually choke on congestion,” he says.
The American Road and Transportation Builders Association emphasizes the movement of freight. “Of all the transportation infrastructure needs we have as a nation,” the group wrote in a recent report, “improving the safe and efficient movement of goods is the key to increasing U.S. productivity, lowering the costs of things we produce and purchase, improving our environment and giving us the competitive edge in world markets.”
Federal funding, the group says, should prioritize the 68,000-mile network of freight corridors that Congress designated in 2015. Those roads include interstate highways and other key arteries that connect the country’s major ports, inland waterways, rail hubs, airports and pipelines.
Rahn says one way to speed freight delivery and improve highway safety is to add truck-only lanes on interstates where more than a third of the vehicles are trucks. “Not only would the truckers love that, but a lot of just individuals who drive their family places would love the idea that they’re not sandwiched between a couple of semis,” he says.
Address Climate Change
“For me,” says Yonah Freemark, an influential urbanist and journalist, “the most important goal in transportation is reducing—and, if possible, eliminating—the carbon emissions that are produced by our mobility system, as quickly as possible. We only have so much time to address climate change, and transportation is the biggest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions.”
There are many ways to go about that goal. Some are included in the Senate’s latest plan, but many are not. Congress could discourage gas-guzzling automobiles by raising fuel taxes or imposing taxes on carbon dioxide pollution. It could add incentives to build out electric infrastructure and renewable power sources to make using a zero-emission or low-emission electric vehicle less of a hassle. It could add incentives for transit, cycling and pedestrian infrastructure to keep vehicles off the road altogether. It could invest in research for alternative sources for aviation fuel or build out passenger rail services as an alternative to flying short distances.
Freemark argues that even more drastic steps are necessary, although he admits changing Americans’ dependence on cars would be “no easy feat.”
“Congress can take the first step by stopping funding for highway projects,” he says. “We invest billions of dollars each year in new road infrastructure, which increases transportation emissions directly and then produces more auto-dependent neighborhoods, which further increase transportation emissions. We must simply put a stop to this cycle by putting a halt to transportation expenditures that go to expanding or extending road systems.”
In the meantime, states and localities still must wrestle with the current effects of climate change, and that means making infrastructure more resilient.
“Call it a Green New Deal or call it saving the Earth,” says Garcetti, the L.A. mayor. “Any infrastructure ambitions we have are about to be swamped by climate change. We see it in the fires, we see it in the floods, we see it in the rising tides. We know that this is real.”
Garcetti says building disaster-resistant infrastructure and green energy projects could also be a “big boon” for struggling workers that feel left out of the country’s economic prosperity, whether they’re in the Midwest or in Los Angeles.
But the investment needs to be much bigger than the $10 billion in the Senate plan, he says. The $10 billion, Garcetti says, is “the turning of the handle on the door. It’s not even yet opening the door, let alone what we will need to walk through that door. But you can’t get through the door without turning the handle, and we can’t begin to move resources in without the door being opened.”
Corinne Kisner, the executive director of the National Association of City Transportation Officials, says Congress’ top goal should be increasing the number of people “who have access to reliable, frequent transit that goes where they need to go.”
Congress could help states and cities achieve that goal by adding more transit funding and expanding the types of projects that the money could be spent on, like, for example, letting cities or transit agencies build sidewalks to transit stops, Kisner says. Congress should reward cities and states that increase transit use through good network design, street design and transit planning by tying increases in funding to increases in transit use.
But Jarrett Walker, a transit consultant and author of the book and website Human Transit, cautions against “fixations on specific technologies and infrastructures.” The goal should be even broader, he says: “Freedom without harm.”
“Maximize the number of jobs and opportunities that people can reach, so that they have the greatest possible freedom in their lives, using methods that scale so as not to destroy the world or other people,” he says. “This principle leads to reasonable rural road investments but retooling investments toward transit, bike and pedestrian infrastructure as density rises.”
Walker says federal funding should be reconfigured so that road money is directed to rural and exurban areas, while urban areas get more transit money. The guiding principle would be outcomes, not specific kinds of infrastructure. “We talk about infrastructure, which evokes the heroism of builders, rather than operations or outcomes,” he says. “In my field, transit, we frequently build infrastructure that is inoperable—or that would fail utterly [in giving people freedom of movement]—simply because building becomes the goal in itself.”
Decrease Road Deaths
More than 40,000 people died every year on U.S. roads for each of the last three years, according to the National Safety Council, the first time that has happened since the Great Recession. One of the biggest frustrations for safety advocates is that speeding continues to be a major factor, even as the country has made progress over recent decades in reducing deaths from drunk driving and people not wearing their seatbelts.
Beth Osborne, from Transportation for America, says Congress should make greater efforts to curtail speed-related deaths. Congress could give localities—and not just states—the power to lower speed limits in developed areas. It could rescind federal recommendations to set speed limits based on the “85th percentile” rule, which specifies that the limits should be high enough that 85 percent of drivers travel under the speed even when no speed limit signs are posted.
Federal lawmakers could require states to gather data on crashes and injuries that are “speed related, not speeding related,” she adds. “A speeding related crash is one where the driver was exceeding the speed limit. A speed related fatality is a fatality made more likely by the speed of travel, even if it was in compliance with the posted speed.”
And overall, Osborne says, Congress should set safety targets for states that require them to show improvement over existing injury and fatality levels, or else they would have to dedicate more of their federal money to safety.
Ironically, greater vehicle speeds are often seen as the goal of transportation projects, Osborne says, even though fast-moving vehicles don’t guarantee quick trips, because of things like cross streets and congestion. Fast traffic can also harm businesses, because potential customers don’t see stores as they whiz by at 45 mph.
There are other potential ways to reduce speed that Osborne didn’t mention. Congress, for example, could reduce funding for states that ban speed cameras or add money for those that use them. It could require the federal Department of Transportation to coordinate a national education campaign on speeding, akin to “Click It or Ticket” for seat belt use, something the National Transportation Safety Board has advocated . It could allow State Highway Safety Offices to spend federal grants on promoting safe road designs, not just public education and enforcement measures.
Better Roads on Native American Reservations
Too often, the debate over infrastructure and Native American lands centers on what infrastructure should be built through those lands—whether that's oil pipelines or border walls—rather than for those lands. As Governing and others have reported, resources to maintain reservation roads or upgrade them from dirt to gravel, much less pavement, are scarce. The jurisdiction over those roads can be confusing and even contentious. But it’s hard to imagine the situation improving without a serious influx of money from the federal government, which often forced tribes onto reservations in the first place.