Rethinking American Transportation Policy

I posted Rethinking American Transportation Policy at National Review. A selection is below.

U.S. transportation policy needs to be brought into the 21st century. When surface-transportation policy was last significantly overhauled in the United States, in 1991, Americans who wanted to travel to an unfamiliar location used paper maps, usually purchased from a bookstore or gas station. If they were on a toll road, they stopped at the tollbooths and rolled down the window. They listened to an AM/FM radio, a cassette tape, or maybe, if they had a new car, a compact disc. The car of the future was equipped with a fax machine. The Internet, smart phones, and texting were essentially unknown. The Global Positioning System was incomplete, and its use was limited to the military.

Today, Americans use GPS apps that utilize crowdsourcing not only to help them navigate but also to alert them of hazards and reroute them to avoid congestion. They use radio transponders to pay as they drive through toll plazas without slowing down. And they might subscribe to satellite radio, use a predictive streaming service such as Pandora to listen to music, or subscribe to podcasts that cater to their specific tastes. Electric vehicles have moved from fringe to the forefront of automotive technology. There are even a few self-driving cars on the road.

And yet, despite all these innovations and advances, America’s transportation policy remains mired in the 20th century with road maps and cassettes. Every day, American travelers confront continuing traffic congestion, particularly in larger urban areas, and an aging infrastructure whose deterioration outpaces its repair. The causes of these problems, however, are not as obvious to drivers, including structural issues with transportation funding and financing (who pays and how much), the insufficient and outdated management system that oversees our patchwork road system, and the propagation of unnecessary transportation projects, including infamous bridges and roads to nowhere, which primarily serve special interests.


In the 1990s, devolving power from the federal government to the states allowed them to serve as innovative incubators in social policy. Welfare reform is one such example, where federal policymakers empowered states with block grants. Instead of a one-size-fits-all federal policy, states were given greater flexibility to design their own programs.

Implementing a new federalism in transportation policy would improve transportation policy through innovation. To modernize our outdated system, policymakers should give states and localities the same flexibility they have in other successful decentralization efforts. In the laboratories of democracy, better transportation policies and investments may flourish.

This is associated with the release of Modernizing American Transportation Policy, a part of CRN’s Room to Grow series.