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Congress extended the provisions of the Safe, Accountable, Flexible and Efficient Transportation Equity Act-A Legacy for Users (SAFETEA—LU). Authorization of a new surface transportation law would provide Congress the chance to remake federal transportation policy and direct funding toward projects that foster livable communities, protect the global environment, and stimulate economic recovery. Congress can strengthen its surface transportation program by:
- establishing a clear federal vision that guides transportation investments,
- increasing public transportation and other mobility options,
- improving the safety of the transportation system,
strengthening metropolitan planning organizations,
- maintaining existing infrastructure;
- increasing transparency and accountability, and
- identifying dedicated short- and long-term funding for the system.
Central to each of these goals is the need to ensure that the transportation system’s costs and benefits are distributed equitably.
A Clear Federal Vision
The national vision for transportation must include a strong policy statement that ties transportation investment to the creation of livable communities. In doing so it must recognize changing demographic and environmental issues. Thus the federal role in transportation must reach beyond interstate highways and intercity transit to include infrastructure and services that meet the needs of an aging population, support for local and regional economies in their quest to connect to the world economy, aid in reducing our dependence on foreign energy supplies, and ways to address global climate change.
Stronger Metropolitan Planning Organizations
More than 80 percent of the US population resides in a metropolitan area. Nonetheless federal transportation funding is still largely controlled by states rather than by metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs). As a result metropolitan areas together contribute significantly more in tax receipts than they receive in allocations from state highway funds or through direct local transfers. Suballocation of federal dollars directly to MPOs would provide MPOs with more money and flexibility to invest in the transportation options they deem best suited to their cities.
Transparency and Accountability
The federal transportation program is dominated by politics and special interests. Projects receiving earmarked funds, grew from just ten in 1982, when Congress passed the Surface Transportation Assistance Act, to more than 5,500 with the passage of SAFETEA—LU. Earmarking can undermine the efficient use of transportation resources by weakening state and local planning. Additionally, federal investment is not based on measurable outcomes, making it difficult to hold fund recipients accountable for improving key aspects of transportation system performance. Therefore, the federal government needs to modernize its data-tracking system by tracking not only costs for contracts, but also projects, highway statics and other data at the local level and how sales tax revenue funds highway and transit projects on a national level. Moreover the National Transit Database requires only transit systems receiving federal funding to report ridership data, operation characteristics and revenue, and expenditure information. This archaic data collection system makes it virtually impossible for stakeholders and the public to understand how transportation revenue is raised and where money is spent, and to make comparisons across investments in different modes of transportation.
The manner in which we fund our transportation system and the investment choices our nation makes have reverberating effects on the availability of mobility options, the environment, and economic opportunity. Given the current economic climate, funding will be central to reauthorization discussions but it must be done fairly, taking into account highways and public transit for metropolitan and rural areas, funding methods that rely disproportionately on contributions from lower-income households, and incentives for sustainable travel behavior.
Current federal funding for core highway programs outstrips public transportation funding by four to one. In addition the practice of funneling federal funds through state departments of transportation rather than MPOs has disempowered local decisionmakers from supporting projects that best address local mobility, economic, and environment challenges. States have been reluctant to use federal dollars to fund public transit, and 33 states forbid the use of state gas-tax revenue for transit investment. As a result, more than half of the largest metropolitan areas have inadequate transit service.
Highway funding continues to enjoy a federal matching ratio of 90 percent for improvements and maintenance on the interstate highway system, and an 80 percent rate for most other highway investments. While older adults certainly benefit from highway infrastructure investment, it is clear that our nation cannot rely solely on travel in personal vehicles to meet the needs of this growing subgroup. Increased funding targeted to mobility options is required. Where highway investments are made, the US needs to ensure that the specific safety needs of older adults are incorporated into project design through a complete-streets approach and specific investments in safety for older drivers and pedestrians. High-speed commuter highways with multiple lanes of traffic and complex intersections are not the best investments for meeting the safety and mobility needs of older drivers and pedestrians.
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