The Road From SAFETEA-LU to GROW AMERICA

The Road From SAFETEA-LU to GROW AMERICA

May 25, 2014  | Emil Frankel

Last week we saw the first Administration-authored, publicly released surface transportation bill since 2003. In examining the arc of national transportation policy over the last several years, most observers might be dismayed. We have yet to solve what now seems like a perpetual funding problem, we have not passed long-term multi-year highway and transit legislation for almost a decade, and the reforms that did occur in Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century (MAP-21) struck many as insufficient. The Administration’s proposal – Generating Renewal, Opportunity, and Work with Accelerated Mobility, Efficiency, and Rebuilding of Infrastructure and Communities Act (GROW AMERICA) – is not likely to solve any of these problems.

However, when faced with challenges like these, it is sometimes difficult to remember exactly how far we have come. The proposed GROW AMERICA legislation demonstrates substantial progress in how we as a nation are thinking about federal transportation investment. More importantly, when viewed through the lens of the seemingly insurmountable gridlock of late in Washington, DC, and the initial goals many of us had when we first embarked on a goal to reform national policy, there has been substantial progress in actual legislation – MAP-21 – as well.

When the National Transportation Policy Project (NTPP) of the Bipartisan Policy Center (BPC) issued its report, Performance Driven: A New Vision for U.S. Transportation Policy, in 2009, we were optimistic that our voice could be a strong one for reform. The report focused on the need to reform federal surface transportation programs, consistent with clearly articulated national goals and principles of performance, measurement, outcomes, and accountability. Two central questions motivated and guided NTPP, in preparing this document:

  1. Why and for what purposes should the federal government invest in transportation?
  2. How can the federal government ensure that any greater investment be wiser investment that effectively advances national purposes?

Five years after the Performance Driven report was published, and with the Administration proposal being released and another proposal from Senate Environment and Public Works on the way shortly, it is timely to consider how successful NTPP and Eno have been in moving national transportation policy toward the incorporation of these values. Since the initial NTPP report, Congress passed MAP-21 and now the Administration has released a bill. Many of the same components present in the initial NTPP report can be seen in some of these laws and proposals.

Incremental Progress in MAP-21

As the June 2009 NTPP report recommended, MAP-21 took important initial steps toward simplification and consolidation of federal highway programs, contained a greater focus on asset management and preservation, and articulated principles of goals and performance measurement in the development and implementation of federal surface transportation programs. There seems little doubt that the influence of NTPP, Eno and other organizations’ reform efforts was reflected in MAP-21’s emphasis on performance management and in the establishment of the new and consolidated National Highway Performance Program (NHPP). MAP-21 required states and metropolitan planning organizations to set targets for highway condition and performance, and it directed the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) to undertake a rule-making process to establish measures for determining whether the targets have been met.

MAP-21 also borrowed several specific ideas from NTPP. For example, the safety metrics specified in the legislation and now in the FHWA rulemaking are exactly what NTPP recommended. We also recommended, along with many others, expanding the Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act (TIFIA) program to accommodate demand. Finally, the national goals articulated in MAP-21 are remarkably similar to those articulated by NTPP, and the fact that those goals actually exist may be due in part to NTPP’s insistence on their necessity.

MAP-21 did not go as far as NTPP recommended in 2009 in introducing a programmatic structure based on outcomes and in rewarding states and metropolitan regions for meeting national performance goals. Under MAP-21, performance outcomes remain separate from funding. Still, MAP-21 was an essential beginning in introducing more performance-based surface transportation programs. Given the political challenges surrounding the bill, this was likely the most that was politically achievable at the time of enactment.

The President’s Proposal

The continuing influence of the NTPP report and its recommendations are also reflected in the Administration’s legislative proposal for reauthorization of the federal surface transportation programs after MAP-21 expires on September 30, 2014. One of the hallmarks of NTPP and subsequent Eno efforts has been to emphasize the needs for broad discretionary grant programs that reward innovative, multimodal and programmatic proposals for achieving specific national performance outcomes. GROW AMERICA proposes substantial growth in these types of programs, something NTPP recommended in its initial report.

Included in the growth of these discretionary programs is a new multimodal freight investment program, something that NTPP and Eno have advocated for years. Another program that appears to be very much in line with NTPP and Eno suggestions is the Fixing and Accelerating Surface Transportation (FAST) program, which rewards programs of projects, collaboration across modes and political entities, and emphasizes metropolitan mobility. The Administration also proposes codifying and strengthening the Transportation Investments Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) program. All of these developments are very much in line with previous NTPP and Eno recommendations.

The Administration proposal also emphasizes, as have NTPP and Eno, the connection between transportation and economic growth. The bill establishes a new national goal of achieving a transportation system that connects people to economic opportunities, along with performance measures for evaluating achievement of that goal. GROW AMERICA also liberalizes tolling provisions, permitting states to toll on the Interstate System, in line with NTPP recommendations. While NTPP was not the only voice calling for this reform, it was an important component of our strategy of providing more flexibility to states in how they might choose to achieve national transportation performance goals.

Conclusions

While important beginnings were undertaken by MAP-21 and the rule-making processes directed by the legislation, and the Administration proposal is very encouraging, much remains to be accomplished in order to carry out NTPP’s key recommendations.

First, no serious proposal has been made—either by the Administration or by Congressional transportation leaders—to establish sustainable revenue sources for investment in the nation’s transportation infrastructure.

Second, with federal investment resources constrained and federal surface transportation funding levels stagnant, NTPP advocated moving toward more comprehensive, prioritized, and strategic planning and capital programming at the state and metropolitan levels. Such reforms would allow scarce public capital to be focused on those programs, projects, and operations that promise the greatest benefits, in terms of national goals and purposes. To date, little progress has been made in undertaking these reforms. While MAP-21 and the Administration bill emphasize some reforms to the planning process, neither has articulated a means of rewarding wise investment decisions using federal money that is distributed by formula.

Finally, while MAP-21 enacted a significant expansion of the TIFIA credit and credit enhancement program, much remains to be done to assure that federal funds will be available and used more effectively to leverage other public and private investment in transportation infrastructure, as recommended by NTPP. As federal funding stagnates, the shift to a federal financing and incentivizing role must be accelerated.

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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