GOP-ers and Dems Agree: Feds Need to Get Their Transpo Act Together

Reports on federal transportation policy — like campaign fundraisers and lobbying groups — seem to proliferate in Washington, most of them drawing a few days’ worth of news coverage before fading from memory. (Remember the National Surface Transportation Infrastructure Financing Commission and the National Surface Transportation Policy and Revenue Commission?)

slade.jpgFormer Sen. Slade Gorton (R-WA), one of the co-chairs of the BPC transportation project (Photo: AP)

But the Bipartisan Policy Center’s (BPC) National Transportation Policy Project released a document this morning that hopefully will have a longer public shelf life. The project’s 26 members, some of whom represent familiar allies and foes of livable streets advocates, managed to suggest a pretty ground-breaking overhaul of transportation funding that aims to do what many Streetsblog readers have longed for: put highways and transit on an equal footing in competition for federal funds.

Former GOP senator turned lobbyist Slade Gorton, one of the project’s co-chairman, described the report as pushing lawmakers to support "the best investments, regardless of whether" they are in transit, inter-city passenger rail or roads. The BPC proposed winnowing down the U.S. DOT’s 108 programs to six, all of which would award money in a "mode-neutral" fashion — that is, without forcing transit to take a pre-determined, and tiny, slice of the federal funding pie.

Perhaps because many of its members are closely aligned with road-building interests, the project took an artificially dismissive approach to the current inequities in the system, lamenting that

many transportation policy discussions continue to be dominated by endless debates about what is more subsidized or disadvantaged: highways vs. transit, trucks vs. rail, and passengers vs. freight.

It’s been proven pretty conclusively that highways don’t face a 77-year backlog, but leaving political antagonism aside gave the BPC project some room to embrace several other worthy conclusions.

Congress is strongly urged to impose performance targets on all recipients of federal transportation cash, with diminished CO2 emissions and petroleum use becoming prominent and stated goals. On page 23 of the report, lawmakers are reminded that (emphasis mine)

there has been little systematic effort to take advantage of carbon reductions available through transportation policies that promote reduced travel or the use of more efficient modes and travel alternatives.

It’s nice to see the project members, who included prominent John McCain backers as well as Obama-ites — BPC founder Jason Grumet was a prominent adviser to the president during the campaign — remind the D.C. establishment that getting people out of cars and onto transit pays off.

On that note, both Gorton and former Democratic lawmaker Martin Sabo called for a gradual transition away from the gas tax and towards a fee on vehicle miles traveled (VMT), a prospect the Obama administration has nixed.

Even one current GOP House member, Tom Petri (WI), dismissed critics of the VMT-based approach: "People don’t seem to be concerned about privacy with Garmins or cell phones," Petri observed, although "it’s the same technology" that likely would be used by the government to track VMT.

In addition to project members’ candor on a VMT tax, tucked on page 89 of the report is a thumbs-up for congestion pricing:

While [the BPC project] does not wish to prescribe specific solutions, congestion pricing is an extremely valuable tool for addressing the economic, environmental and energy impacts of transportation simultaneously.

The entire BPC report, available for download here, is worth a look. But the best summation of its message was provided by Robert Puentes, director of the Brookings Institutions’ Metropolitan Policy Program.

"There was a lot of unanimity around one issue," Puentes said. "The federal government needs to get its act together."

  • Allan

    Why does everyone think Privacy is such a concern with a VMT tax.

    Just check odometers every year or two with car registration. put decently-high fees on cars with broken odometers and all will be well with the world

  • Elana, this is great reporting. I was present at today’s BPC event, and this latest post is an excellent synthesis of it. On the issue of VMT, Streetsblog readers may also be interested to know that Rep. Petri suggested we introduce VMT by implementing it first with truckers, which is an excellent idea. As the Congressman himself explained (and I paraphrase), “Once everyone sees the big guys doing it, they’ll feel more comfortable with it.”

    Thanks again, Elana.

  • Mike

    Agree, great reporting. This new federal coverage is a valuable service SBlog is performing.

    Kenney – good point. I believe starting with trucks is how a few European countries (e.g. Germany) have done it.

  • Fantastic stuff. It feels like a long-overdue return to pragmatism in terms of transport funding and issues.

    I am interested in locating the inflection point when transport funding became so skewed towards automobiles, and when the push for road funding became axiomatic rather than logical. For instance increasing traffic on roads must have been a problem for truck drivers over the last 20+ years; why is it being raised as an issue now?

    Not sure if it’s a function of the political climate or if it’s based on demographic shifts. Any tips from other more educated readers?

  • It’s interesting that although placing a carbon tax on gasoline has no privacy issues, is incredibly easy to levy (systems already are in place), and would discourage CO2 release, the far more difficult and costly to implement VMT is considered more politically acceptable. So be it. However, any VMT levied absolutely needs to be proportional to the weight of the vehicle involved so as to legitimately reflect the damage the vehicle inflicts on the road. Charging a Mini-Cooper the same fee per mile as a Hummer would be grossly unfair when the Hummer weighs four times as much. As a bicyclist, I would even be happy to pay a penny a mile VMT tax if an SUV had to pay an equivalent tax per pound of $2 per mile.

  • It’s not just wear and tear on the roads, Mom. It’s also the cost of using that land, the cost of congestion, and the cost of sprawl. It’s true that lighter vehicles contribute less to that, but only because they’re usually smaller. if someone built a Hummer out of fiberglass, it would still take up just as much room.

  • Ken Harris

    I don’t think imposing this on trucks is the way to go. That would increase the cost of shipping goods and doing business much of it necessary, as rail doesn’t get you everywhere. A VMT from odometer readings for non-shipping related vehicles makes more sense.

    We need to reduce the amount of personal trips taken by car, rather than add yet more regulations to businesses.

  • Ian Turner

    Ken, trucks create even more air emissions and roadway wear and tear than cars. Why shouldn’t they have to pay their own way? There’s no reason to think the truck shipping industry deserves more subsidies than e.g. the sea shipping industry.

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