Make Transportation Policy Accountable Says NTPP

The message of the National Transportation Policy Project (NTPP) is clear from the start, “US transportation policy needs to be more performance-driven, more directly linked to a set of clearly articulated goals, and more accountable for results.”

Under the aegis of the Bipartisan Policy Center, the NTPP report notes, “National transportation policy has lost direction and a clear sense of purpose, threatening substantial costs to our collective prosperity, security, environment, and quality of life.” The four co-chairs of the NTPP include a former mayor, former senator and two former US representatives and is split evenly between Democrats and Republicans. They stated, “ We are recommending bold and comprehensive reform founded on a relatively simple proposition: US transportation policy needs to be more performance-driven, more directly linked to a set of clearly articulated goals, and more accountable for results.”

The report cautioned that, “Existing systems are dated, in many cases strained to (or beyond) capacity, and increasingly fall short of delivering transportation services at the level of quality, performance, and efficiency the American public demands. Current funding mechanisms are not sufficient to maintain existing infrastructure, let alone provide the investments needed to expand and modernize our transportation systems.”

The group saw opportunity, saying, “As Congress prepares to debate a new surface transportation authorization bill, there is growing support for fundamental reform of our nation’s transportation policies. There is also a growing awareness that our approach to transportation must be responsive to a new set of 21st century challenges, from staying competitive in an increasingly globalized economy, to addressing urgent concerns about energy security and climate change.”

But funding will be an issue. “Despite the current surge of stimulus spending, the nation’s collective resources are stretched thin and will be stretched much thinner for the foreseeable future. In this context, directing more resources to transportation through a set of existing policies and programs that are unsustainable, unfocused, and underperforming is not only unwise, it is untenable.

“We recommend a new structure that consolidates all current federal transportation programs into two categories: formula-based system preservation programs and competitive capacity expansion programs. This consolidation is quite extensive—from approximately 108 programs to six—but is essential to focus the programs on performance. Under this new structure, the vast majority of funds would continue to be distributed via formulas—except that these formulas would distribute funds based on new criteria. Current formula distribution criteria provide perverse incentives to increase fuel consumption and carbon emissions, whereas the new criteria would provide funding based on need. All existing formula programs would be merged into three programs and restructured to align with national goals. A separate program would be created to reward good performance with respect to the use of formula funds. All other funding would be distributed through competitive grant programs that are programmatic, multimodal, and based on the ability of grantees to demonstrate progress toward defined national goals.”

The report further stated, “With a few exceptions, the transportation planning processes that currently exist at the state and metropolitan levels do not support a strategic, performance-based, and accountable approach to decision-making. NTPP recommends new incentives for improved planning, including offering the carrot of additional planning funds in exchange for collaboration across modal, agency, and jurisdictional lines. This will help to shift the focus to encouraging adequate planning processes, rather than mandating specific institutional structures. We have also concluded that to the extent that current federal financial support for transportation planning is not sufficient or flexible enough to support broader planning efforts by state agencies or MPOs [municipal planning organizations], it should be expanded.”

NTPP said the effort to bring about fundamental changes in US transportation policy is not only well-justified by the benefits that could be achieved but is necessary given the scale and urgency of the multiple transportation-related challenges the nation faces in the coming decades.

The group proposes a new formula program it calls Sustaining National Connectivity it says would target federal funds to those investments most necessary to preserve the national transportation system. “A cost-based formula offers the simplest and most direct way of allocating federal funds under this program,” says the report. “Such a formula can, at least initially, make use of the analyses already conducted by US Department of Transportation as part of its bi-annual Conditions and Performance report. Another factor to include in the formula could be freight value ton-miles within a state, to account for rail preservation needs until an objective measure of needs based on freight congestion and bottlenecks can be developed.”

The formula could also reward efforts by states that have implemented revenue-raising and asset management policies, says NTPP. A significant level of federal support for system preservation would be guaranteed for all states under this formula, it continues. “The funds would flow directly to states on a mode-neutral basis for the purpose of preserving and enhancing elements of existing transportation systems—including roads and freight and passenger rail—that play a role in connecting the nation.” This will require a methodical redefinition of what comprises this federal system, to ensure that included facilities are truly in the national interest, the group adds.

In a note of interest to railroads, the group says, “Private infrastructure would be eligible for federal funds provided a compelling justification exists on the basis of public benefits and provided there is an appropriate private match.”

“We call the first of these new competitive programs Improving Federal Connections (IFC). It would fund the expansion of the national transportation network across modes, with a focus on all forms of freight transportation, together with investments in passenger transportation, such as intercity highway, bus, and rail links, as well as improvements to multimodal access for ports and airports. Any state, region, or locality (or collection of regional, state, or local entities) could apply for grants to fund programs, as opposed to individual projects, that improve the performance of the overall transportation network.”

DOT would evaluate applications and make funding recommendations subject to Congressional approval, under the NTPP-proposed structure.

The Executive Summary of the report is available at the Bipartisan Policy Center.

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