Sean Slone at Council of State Governments writes about The Future of the Federal Role in Transportation
When the current federal surface transportation authorization bill, known as MAP-21, expires at the end of September, it likely will be replaced with a status quo plan.
Both the Obama administration and the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee recently have opted for a status quo approach to the role the federal government traditionally has played in sustaining the nation’s transportation system.
But a chorus of voices is once again advocating for a radical rethinking of those traditional federal and state roles in the transportation arena. Some see 2014 as a turning point since the federal Highway Trust Fund, which finances more than $50 billion a year in highway, bridge and transit projects, also appears past due for restructuring.
“The problem is the gas tax,” Rohit Aggarwala, an adviser to former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and professor at Columbia University, wrote in a piece for Bloomberg View last year.
“(The gas tax) has declined in value drastically since it was last increased in 1993—even as the price of gas itself has tripled. As a result, both the main Highway Trust Fund and its transit account (often called the transit trust fund) are bankrupt.”
David Levinson, a professor at the University of Minnesota, also believes Congress should rethink and reprioritize what the Highway Trust Fund is used for. Levinson, another participant on this month’s webinar, co-authored a brief for the Brookings Institution’s Hamilton Project in 2011 with a title that gives a good idea of his position: “Fix It First, Expand it Second, Reward It Third: A New Strategy for America’s Highways.”
Levinson and co-author Matthew Kahn of UCLA propose that all revenues from the existing federal gas tax and tolls be redirected away from construction of new transportation projects and go “primarily to repair, maintain, rehabilitate, reconstruct and enhance existing roads and bridges.”
But new projects wouldn’t be left entirely high and dry under their proposal. They proposed a Federal Highway Bank to provide state funding to build new and expand existing roads. Funding would be contingent on strict performance criteria, such as a cost-benefit analysis.
“States would be required to demonstrate an ability to repay the loan through direct user charges and by capturing some of the increase in land values near transportation improvements,” they wrote.
The third prong of the duo’s proposal would involve rewarding states and local governments that exceed performance standards and achieve socially desirable outcomes on transportation projects in such areas as capacity, safety, equity and environmental improvement. A newly created Highway Performance Fund would reward states with subsidized loans and performance bonuses.
Thursday, May 29, 2-3 p.m. EDT
MAP-21, the 2012 federal surface transportation authorization bill, is set to expire later this year. Meanwhile, the Highway Trust Fund faces an insolvency crisis due to rapidly dwindling gas tax revenues, and there appears to be little agreement in Congress on how to fund the federal transportation program. Some say that makes this year ripe for a reconsideration of the federal role in transportation and have proposed devolution of the federal program to the states. Many states continue to rely on the federal government for a significant portion of their transportation spending, however, and might be challenged to come up with revenues on their own from a limited tax base. This webinar will examine the pros and cons of devolution, the future of the federal role in transportation and what it could all mean for state and local governments.
Dr. Rohit Aggarwala
Principal, Bloomberg Associates
Director, Transportation for America
Policy analyst, Thomas A. Roe Institute for Economic Policy Studies at The Heritage Foundation
Professor, University of Minnesota
Our society has undergone many subtle and not-so-subtle changes in the past few decades. Among those related to driving, safety, and perceived safety, I believe there have been lasting effects.
When I was growing up, and I went for a ride with my mom, I would sit in the front seat of the car. I would wear a seatbelt (a habit formed because of the seat-belt ignition interlock on our Chevy Vega preventing the engine from starting without seat belts (a one-year experiment reviled by the driving public). My children sit in the back seat because of the rise of so-called child safety seats and air bags.
When I was growing up, I would walk down the block alone in pre-school and Kindergarten, and around the neighborhood by 1st grade, and all over town by 3rd grade. I would ride the ColumBus by 4th grade with my Package Plan card (giving me free rides in on the system, a benefit which has since been removed). Today there is a movement for Free Range Kids because such freedom has diminished.
Practicing pop sociology, I attribute this decrease in children’s freedom to the Atlanta Child Murders, the Missing Kids on the back of Milk Boxes, Adam Walsh, and Amber Alerts, all which are making child kidnapping seem much more common than it was before or than it really is. Couple this with the decreased number of children per family, meaning children are less disposable than they once were.
Today’s kids sit in the back seat, have a much diminished range, are more likely to be driven by parent or school bus to their school.
Drivers from other countries in the US are often derided as poor quality. However, keep in mind, they grew up seldom riding in a car at all if ever, and thus never learned the tacit rules of driving that many Americans are accustomed to. Perhaps the driving tests in the US are insufficiently stringent, but there are many things one can learn about driving just be riding in the front seat of a car, which immigrants, and today’s kids, fail to experience.
The net is that when you go through life as a passenger rather than a driver, your motivation for driving is lower, since you are not modeling driving yourself as you would watching through the front windshield, and your quality of driving is lower since you lack experience. These two factors presumably feed on each other, as people like doing what they are good at. I posit this as one of a number of factors that has led to a significant decline per capita travel.