A Counterpoint to, “A Constrained Federal Aid Highway Program: Rightsizing for the 21st Century?”

A Counterpoint to, “A Constrained Federal Aid Highway Program: Rightsizing for the 21st Century?”

January 19, 2015  | Carter Templeton

Transportation Consultant

In the last edition of the Eno Brief, Steve Lockwood presented one view of a future Federal Aid Highway Program under constrained finances. It is also worth considering a fundamentally different approach meriting equal consideration.

Steve established a set of national priorities that he believes should receive funding priority under various reduced federal funding scenarios. He envisions a System of National Significance (SNS) incorporating a High-Standard “Intelligent” Core National Highway Network. “The core SNS would be fully instrumented and designed to capitalize on new technology -public and private – including automated and connected vehicles and advanced Intelligent Transportation Systems and telematics.”

He also advocates maintaining “Issue Related Priority Programs” including safety, roads on federal lands, expanded research, data, education, administration, and planning.

This specific counterpoint proposal has two fundamental elements:

  1. Priority under limited resources should be limited to maintaining prior federal investment in federal-aid systems, particularly the Interstate System. Use available funds to maintain the performance of existing systems and the investments that have been made. Under this approach there should be enough funds to support issue related priority programs. More fundamentally, new system capacity should be funded by user fees, not federal-aid, unless a state certifies that prior federal investments are being maintained.
  2. The periodic U.S. Department of Transportation reports to Congress on the “Condition and Performance of the Nation’s Surface Highway and Transit Systems” should undergo a fundamental restructuring. The reports are not serving Congress, the administration or the broader transportation community in formulating future federal-aid highway and transit programs. While the data base of highway sections and the needs computation methodology are sound, the national totals of highway and transit needs to which the reports are limited are not helpful to Congress in formulating a reauthorization of ISTEA and its successors that will meet the needs of fifty states and over 300 metropolitan areas. In recent years states, metropolitan areas, and transit operators have worked within the limitations of existing programs and created additional investment mechanisms. The reality and the successes of what the states, metropolitan areas and the many transit providers have achieved in spite of federal fiscal and regulatory policies, is totally lost in the constrained presentations in the reports to Congress. Congress and the administration need to have totals by state and major metropolitan areas, not only of the highway and transit needs estimates, but also a summary of system investments that have been made and the investment mechanisms, conventional and innovative, that have been utilized. The numbers are all available, but there is an out-of-date impression that the federal government should not publish data that would allow evaluation of performance of transportation systems in individual states. The federal government has worked with the states since 1916 in a program that is a model for federal/state partnership. Its success has been heralded for years. In these days of support for performance monitoring, about why we must be able to publish accomplishments, needs, and successful approaches, by state.

The Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act (ISTEA) was to be the basis for the post interstate highway program. Congress took a modest administration proposal and expanded it in many ways. Interest groups had input to the administration proposal, and more importantly to the Congressional bill through the efforts of the late Senator Daniel Moynihan (D-NY). Virtually all parties celebrated the enactment of ISTEA for its funding levels and its innovative substance.

ISTEA with its reauthorizations has had a good, almost 25-year run. The investments made under it have proven to be beneficial. Congress in its wisdom contributed to its merit by subsequently eliminating the practice of congressionally mandated demonstration projects. However, a hard look at what has happened long term under ISTEA as well as the transportation investments that have occurred outside the ISTEA framework leads to the conclusion that while ISTEA has had a good run, it has not fulfilled its expectations. It is time to go back to the type of fundamental questions that were asked in the broadly participatory exercise in the run-up to ISTEA.

It is not likely in the short term that any federal taxation mechanism will be available to support a federal aid program larger than we currently have available. Neither federal highway and transit aid nor federal highway systems are driving new capacity investment. States with serious transportation deficiencies have established investment programs that move beyond current federal-aid, using bonding, tolls, high occupancy vehicle lanes, variable pricing, etc., to try to get the job done. They often are forced to work around outdated federal laws and rules. Many states and metropolitan areas are doing a much better job of coordinating highway and transit investment than the feds.

By default, and the realization of the limitations on federal funds, many states, metropolitan areas and state-created authorities are using the approaches characterized above to overcome the limitations of the federal-aid program to achieve project improvements their system planning tells them are significant, cost effective and achievable.

Steve and others have confined their analysis to the highway program. Going back to the 1973 Highway Act there has been an increasing degree of flexibility between federal assistance to highways and transit. The choice has not been federal, but at the option of state and local officials acting through Metropolitan Planning Organizations. Such flexibility has to be maintained in any future surface transportation reauthorization.

The assumptions that were the foundation of the highway program since its founding and the federal assistance to transit since it was initiated in the early 1960s no longer hold. The Interstate System program has been remarkably successful. Similarly, transit in the country has rebounded. The declining ridership and failing transit systems of the 1960s are a thing of the past. Federal, state and local investments have worked in both the highway and transit programs.

Going forward we no longer have a national surface transportation problem. On the highways side, perhaps twenty to thirty states are doing just fine. Steve’s system of national significance would only have links in perhaps half the states and then only in major metropolitan areas. In transit there is a similar situation, the “new start” agenda has largely been successfully played out. If only the reports to Congress would break out of their national snapshots and capture the dynamism that is occurring throughout the country, we would be in a better position to define and then debate the options that are relevant today.


In the future under constrained funding we should put a federal priority on protecting past investments and give states, metropolitan areas, transit operators, and special authorities the leeway to invest in ways that take advantage of all the mechanisms that we define as innovative finance.

We also need to undertake immediately a broader analysis of the performance and needs of our nation’s highway and transit systems. We need to document and analyze the mechanisms that leading states and metropolitan areas are using as they work with the current inadequate mechanisms. We then need to report the results by states and major metropolitan areas.   Congress, the administration, the broader transportation community and the public deserve no less.

Let’s continue the discussion.

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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