Three Pragmatic Initiatives for the Incoming Secretary of Transportation

Three Pragmatic Initiatives for the Incoming Secretary of Transportation
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BY Joshua L. Schank
President & CEO
Eno Center for Transportation

The advice often given to incoming members of the President’s Cabinet is to pick three issues on which to focus their energy, because you cannot do everything and must pick your battles. This seems like sage advice but the challenge, and perhaps the success of a Secretary, hinges on the actual issues that are chosen. You want to choose things that can have a real impact, but at the same time you want to pick things that you actually have a chance of accomplishing.

Charlotte Mayor Anthony Foxx, President Obama’s pick for Secretary of Transportation, has already articulated his three top priorities: 1) Safety; 2) Performance and Accountability; and 3) Funding. While we would like to think these choices were made because Mr. Foxx is an avid reader of this column and fan of Eno, we have no evidence to support this. But these are excellent goals and it is encouraging to see the likely incoming Secretary articulate them.

However, beyond choosing these broader goals, in order to be successful Mr. Foxx will need to drill down further and determine what specifically can be accomplished. The following are some thoughts on specific ideas within each of these goals that the new Secretary could realistically hope to achieve.

Safety

Every transportation secretary makes safety a priority in some way. This is done in part because it is a commendable goal that is hard to disagree with, and also because the U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT) is in a unique position to influence safety on a large scale. Secretary Ray LaHood chose distracted driving as his core initiative and he effectively used his bully pulpit to draw attention to that issue. Mr. Foxx could similarly choose a specific safety issue, but perhaps a more effective means of improving safety could be to begin with best practices across modes.

The federal government has an excellent track record with respect to improving safety over the last several decades. Automobile deaths have dropped dramatically—from 53,000 annually in 1970 to 32,000 in 2011—due at least in part to numerous federal initiatives such as seatbelts, air bags, and actions to reduce drunk driving. Aviation deaths have also plummeted, with only 153 fatalities in the last 10 years, achieving about a ten-fold decline in the fatality rate—even greater than what was called for by the Gore Commission in 1997. But what we have not done is look back and figure out the policies and strategies that were the most valuable and how they might be replicated across multiple modes.

The agencies of USDOT operate so much within their respective silos that it is challenging for officials from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to determine to (NHTSA) learn lessons from the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) experience or vice-versa. The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) makes an effort to fill this gap, but NTSB is not part of USDOT and USDOT cannot necessarily follow its recommendations. Mr. Foxx could continue the Departmental Safety Council set-up by Secretary LaHood and use it to lead a department-wide study of safety best practices, with specific policy recommendations to be made across all modes. This could be an excellent contribution in this area, would not require tremendous financial resources, and is almost certainly accomplishable in the remaining years of this administration.

Performance and Accountability

It warms the cockles of my heart to hear this being stated as a priority for this Secretary, but accomplishing it is going to require a substantial effort. While Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century (MAP-21) made some excellent strides in this regard, it did not tie performance to funding and it remains to be seen how states will react once the performance measures rulemaking is completed. But beyond this rulemaking, there will be a greater opportunity to improve performance and accountability when MAP-21 comes up for reauthorization next year, and the new Secretary will have an essential role to play in that. The question for Mr. Foxx is: What should be his legislative priorities that could best advance the ball in this regard?

One possibility is that Mr. Foxx could focus whatever political capital he can muster into creating a permanent multimodal competitive discretionary grant program authorized under surface transportation law. Transportation Investments Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) is the only such program in existence, but it has no multi-year authority and thus cannot assist states and localities in making innovative long-term investment decisions. Mr. Foxx made positive comments regarding TIGER at his confirmation hearing, based on his experience with the program. A multi-year program could be the most effective means available of introducing a more permanent culture of targeting investments towards specific national performance goals. Ideally such a program should be larger but also more targeted toward specific national goals such as freight or mobility. Admittedly, Congress maintains hostility toward competitive grant programs and getting one authorized permanently will be an enormous challenge. But given that Congress is unlikely to take up the fight for such a program, it falls to the administration to lead the charge. If this is the number one priority for the administration in a new authorization bill, it has a chance to become law.

Funding

This has been such a challenge and such a third rail that it is refreshing to see Mr. Foxx’s willingness to take it on. Typically when people think of the funding problem for transportation, it is with regard to highways and transit. But while we all hope that Mr. Foxx intends to tackle the issue of long-term sustainable federal funding for surface transportation, it may not be realistic to expect him to conquer the single biggest issue that has dogged the last three prior transportation secretaries, along with multiple Congresses and Administrations. It is not even certain that the surface legislation will be enacted on his watch, although we hope he will press for it. Regardless of his desire to tackle the issue, he is likely to be severely constrained by the White House and Congress with respect to what he can and cannot do in this area. Given that state and local revenue streams are becoming more essential in this context, Mr. Foxx’s time might be better spent on a smaller but more winnable battle to allow more revenue to be raised locally.

In this vein he might consider securing more resources for a different kind of transportation infrastructure, by taking on the thorny issue of Passenger Facility Charges (PFCs). Federal law caps these fees, which airports levy on passengers, at up to $4.50. The largest airports in the U.S. have substantial investment needs—including capacity improvements that could have large economic benefits for the nation—but they often lack funding for such improvements due to the cap on PFCs. The larger airports have proposed that they would gladly give up their relatively insignificant Airport Improvement Program (AIP) funds in exchange for greater flexibility on PFC charges, but so far Congress has not budged. This is understandable, as the public is not likely to react with enthusiasm to the idea of higher fees on their tickets, and the airlines typically oppose PFC increases. But from a public policy perspective, there is little justification for the federal government restricting these fees. If airports raise the fees too high, presumably passengers and airlines can divert to other airports. Unless there is evidence of collusion or gouging with respect to PFCs, both of which seem hard to imagine, the federal government should permit lifting the cap on PFCs. This would potentially provide an infusion of funding for transportation investments without the federal government having to raise taxes or cut spending elsewhere. It is a potential win that Secretary Foxx could realistically accomplish.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The Eno Center for Transportation.

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