Comprehensive Statements of National Transportation Policy

Comprehensive Statements of National Transportation Policy

February 19, 2020  | Jeff Davis

The concept of “national transportation policy” is a mid-20th-century phenomenon. Before 1937, “transportation” was thought of by federal decisionmakers as an activity – a subset of interstate commerce activity – while the provision of the infrastructure upon which that transportation operated (roads, canals, airports) were thought of as “public works” (just like building courthouses or levees or national parks) and no distinction was made to associate public works with the activities carried out using those public works. And federal regulation of transportation rates and services was often thought of as an entirely different kind of thing from federal provision of services (operation of air traffic control, performance of boat safety inspections).

That started to change when the Brookings Institution issued a report to a Senate committee on the organization of government. That report surveyed the scope of all federal activities in transportation – economic regulation, safety regulation, service provision, and infrastructure provision – and urged Congress to break down the wall distinguishing public works from the activities carried out using those public works: “engineering service is not in itself an objective of government; it is merely one of the means to be utilized in the attainment of larger purposes, such as irrigation, improvement of navigation, or provision of necessary building space. Engineering is an auxiliary service, in the same category as legal advice or accounting, so that the distribution of engineering units among agencies requiring their assistance does not necessarily constitute undesirable duplication.”

President Franklin Roosevelt subscribed to the opposite view (the Robert Moses view) – that all public works were similar enough to be grouped together, and he had created a Federal Works Agency that was a Department of Public Works in all but name that included public roads, public buildings, public housing, and the New Deal works agencies that were building airport and transit projects as well as anything else construction-oriented they could think of.

In 1940, Roosevelt assigned the National Resources Planning Board (chaired by his uncle, Frederic Delano) the job of a national transportation survey, and their comprehensive report also addressed national policy elements, but the report wasn’t released until May 1942, and the intervening start of World War II meant that the report was ignored.

In response to the Hoover Commission’s recommendations of a centralized transportation policy (within the Commerce Department) in early 1949, President Truman ordered Commerce to produce a short survey of federal transportation activities, which they did by the end of the year, but no policy synthesis was forthcoming.

In his first term, President Eisenhower established an advisory committee on Transport Policy and Organization, chaired by Commerce Secretary Sinclair Weeks, but that 1955 report focused mostly on economic competition between modes of surface transportation freight carriers. A second attempt, headed by Weeks’ successor’s successor at Commerce, came out in 1960 and was probably the closest that the federal government had come at that point to a real, multi-modal, overall transportation policy statement, but Eisenhower never actually endorsed it as policy (it had too many contradictions with the budget he had just released two months prior). He did, however, send it to Congress and told them that it had been sent to all federal agencies to see if its recommendations could be worked into a legislative program.

At this point, Congress was anxious to make its own mark on national transportation policy. The Senate Commerce Committee got extra funding from the Senate to hire extra staff and outside consultants for a comprehensive policy review. The 732-page final report, issued in July 1961, was certainly comprehensive, but when filing the report of the study group with the Senate for printing, the chairman felt obligated to put in a foreword stating that “the conclusions and recommendations incorporated into this staff report, and which are extremely controversial, represent the views of the members of the special study group, and have neither been approved, disapproved, nor considered by the Senate Interstate and Foreign Commerce Committee.”

(First of all, try to imagine any Congressional committee working that hard on a policy document today. Second, that report is extra-unusual in that, to this day, it is most commonly known as the “Doyle report” after John Doyle, the staff director of the study group. Name any other Congressional committee report named after the staff director. This is probably an indication of just how often Senators blamed the staff for the report’s conclusions.)

President Kennedy took a different approach – in April 1962, he submitted a special message on transportation to Congress – the first real statement of an overall transportation policy across all modes by a President. Kennedy said:

The basic objective of our nation’s transportation system must be to assure the availability of the fast, safe and economical transportation services needed in a growing and changing economy to move people and goods, without waste or discrimination, in response to private and public demands at the lowest cost consistent with health, convenience, national security and other broad public objectives. Investment or capacity should be neither substantially above nor substantially below these requirements–for chronic excess capacity involves misuse of resources, and lack of adequate capacity jeopardizes progress. The resources devoted to provision of transportation service should be used in the most effective and efficient manner possible; and this, in turn, means that users of transport facilities should be provided with incentives to use whatever form of transportation which provides them with the service they desire at the lowest total cost, both public and private.

This basic objective can and must be achieved primarily by continued reliance on unsubsidized privately-owned facilities, operating under the incentives of private profit and the checks of competition to the maximum extent practicable. The role of public policy should be to provide a consistent and comprehensive framework of equal competitive opportunity that will achieve this objective at the lowest economic and social cost to the nation.

–John F. Kennedy

Lyndon Johnson followed up with his own special message in 1966, which centered around the need to create a Cabinet-level Department of Transportation to house as many different modal activities as possible in once place, under one Cabinet Secretary. (This was a straight line of descent from the recommendations of the original 1937 Brookings report.)

Once USDOT was up and running, Congress passed the 1970 Airport and Airway Development Act, section 3 of which ordered the Secretary of Transportation to “formulate and recommend to the Congress for approval a national transportation policy.” USDOT did so in September 1971, and again in 1975. The latter statement was written by Secretary William Coleman, who then commissioned the first combination of policy framework and a future transportation needs forecast. This document, National Transportation: Trends and Choices (to the year 2000) was the inspiration for similar documents by the George H.W. Bush (1990), Bill Clinton (2000), and Barack Obama (2017) Administrations.

Aside from a 1978 policy statement by the Carter DOT, there don’t seem to be any simple statements of overall transportation policy by the government since then (except for the policy-and-future-needs-forecast documents mentioned in the preceding paragraph). There was also the comprehensive policy statement released in 1979 by the outside commission chaired by Rep. Bud Shuster (R-PA). (If we are missing any multimodal transportation policy statements from authoritative federal sources (no mode-specific or urban-or-rural specific statements need apply), please let us know.)

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