Three New Visionary Ideas for the President
When President Obama gave his State of the Union speech to Congress last month, the transportation community reaction was mixed. The President once again highlighted transportation infrastructure investments as part of his plan for economic growth and job creation. He specifically referenced 70,000 structurally deficient bridges and a “fix-it first” policy for transportation. Later—in a White House press release—the President provided more details including the suggestion that we spend $40 billion on his fix-it-first initiative, along with the creation of a national infrastructure bank and America Fast-Forward bonds. It is not surprising that the transportation community’s reaction was a kind of reluctant gratitude—they were happy to see the President continue to highlight the importance of infrastructure, but disappointed that he seems to be proposing the same ideas he has proposed previously with no clear path to actually achieving them.
It is not easy for a President to galvanize support for transportation, which tends to be thought of as a local rather than national issue. People are not typically excited about initiatives like “fix-it first” or rebuilding our infrastructure, as important as those ideas may be. If they are going to get excited about a national transportation issue, it probably has to be a bold, visionary initiative like building an Interstate System or High-Speed Rail network. Unfortunately, we have already finished the Interstate System, and High-Speed Rail has not yet captured enough public attention to convince Congress to fund it as a long-term investment.
Perhaps there are other “visionary” concepts that a President or Congressional leader could put forward to galvanize support for transportation investment. The goal would be to come up with an initiative that gets people excited, has clear economic benefits, can realistically be accomplished, and can serve the larger necessary goal of rebuilding what we already have. That is a tall order, but if we ever want to see leadership in this area we need to start somewhere. The President has been criticized for failing to provide a strategy for paying for his proposes transportation improvements, so each of the suggestions below also includes a potential pay-for. These “pay-fors” are intended to be new money rather than reallocations of existing funds.
Idea 1: National Commuter Initiative
Instead of talking about putting people to work, we could talk more about getting to work. The Interstate System works very well at connecting cities, but has numerous flaws when it comes to serving commuters within a region. The system was not originally conceived a means of serving metropolitan commuters, and it shows in the congestion and deterioration of our urban highways. Networks within metropolitan regions, where 82 percent of Americans live, are not functioning near where they should be. Our mass transit systems on average serve a small population in metropolitan regions. Our highway systems tend to be “free” and congested. Facilities for bicycles and pedestrians are growing but still meager. In short, there are few effective options for getting to work, and this is a substantial drag on the economy.
This initiative would aim to change that by providing grants to metropolitan and rural regions to increase available commuting options. Politically, this program could be attacked on two fronts: 1) Too metropolitan focused; and 2) Potential for waste. The first issue can be countered by providing a minimum set-aside for rural areas, since rural inhabitants need to get to work too. The second issue demands that clear performance measures and accountability for specific goals be built into this grant program. If these two conditions are met, such a program could be popular because everyone has to get to work (even telecommuters need broadband, which could also be eligible). If constructed effectively, these grants would enable regions to attack their commuting challenges in the way they view as most effective. If the performance measures are designed effectively, they would help encourage projects that rebuild existing infrastructure more effectively, make smart operational changes including better road pricing, and create effective commuting options beyond automobiles.
Pay-for: Dedicated portion of income tax.
This initiative is primarily focused on economic benefits for the nation – improving accessibility to jobs and labor. Therefore it follows that, a percentage of the income tax dedicated towards the initiative each year could justifiably fund it.
Idea 2: Transforming America’s Gateways
The first introduction a passenger has to the U.S. tends to be an airport that is in need of a substantial makeover, but the problem is more than cosmetic. The New York region in particular, the nation’s largest international gateway for passengers, is also the primary source of congestion in our national airspace. Improvements in that region demand more than infrastructure – there would need to be operational changes such as air traffic control improvements and/or improved runway pricing as well.
The first introduction freight has to the U.S. tends to be at the Port of Los Angeles/Long Beach. Faster and more efficient flow through this and other ports can reduce costs for goods and services, improving everyone’s bottom line and lowering prices for consumers. With the impending opening of the Panama Canal to larger ships, now is a good time to make strategic investments in our ports. While it is true that “freight doesn’t vote”, the business community would be behind this in a big way and when combined with an initiative to help passengers at gateways, the idea could be politically popular.
People would be excited about a major initiative to rebuild our international gateways to a higher standard, and the entire freight industry would support an effort to lower costs by improving throughput at our airports and seaports. Improved ground transportation connections to airports and seaports could be another component of this effort, and border crossings could also be targeted for upgrades.
Pay-for: Customs and Border Patrol Taxes
This initiative is primarily focused on improving international access points, so taxes on incoming passengers and imported goods could justifiably be used to fund it
Idea 3: Zero Fatalities
This has been an effort by trade associations, including the American Traffic Safety Services Association, for several years and other countries have adopted it as a clear, tangible goal. We have made tremendous strides in this area, reducing highway fatalities from approximately 42,000 from 32,000 just 10 years ago. But 32,000 fatalities still represent a national tragedy and an obvious target for presidential leadership, and highways are not the only mode in need of safety improvements. While safety has been a major focus of U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, his focus has been on distracted driving in particular, and to a lesser extent on transit and intercity buses. A comprehensive safety effort with a specific goal of eliminating fatalities is something virtually everyone can get behind. It would require comprehensive changes including rebuilding infrastructure to higher safety standards, improved laws and enforcement for drunk driving, distracted driving, and seatbelt use, and operational improvements including signage. These improvements would have economic benefits beyond safety, and accomplish the transportation infrastructure upgrades we so desperately need.
Objections to such a program would be challenging to mount because objections to safety improvements face challenges gaining traction. The real challenge here would be to ensure that funds are spent effectively in pursuit of zero fatalities. This means strong accountability for how funds are spent, and encouraging states and regions to make the tough political choices that can make have the greatest effect on fatality and injury rates. It will not be sufficient to simply send more money to states under the existing Highway Safety Improvement Program. This would need to be a multimodal effort with specific incentives to move beyond traditional safety strategies.
Pay-for: Gas Tax Increase
Road users would be the primary beneficiaries of this effort, and therefore it makes sense for them to fund it. A gas tax increase has eluded us for years, but if there is anything that could get it done it is probably reducing fatalities.
All of these ideas are suggestions, but more are needed. These ideas require funding and the chances of securing funding for any new federal policy initiative at this particular moment in history seem bleak, bordering on impossible. We also need to consider ideas that allow us to get more out of the funds we currently have available, as discussed in this column multiple times. However, eventually there will be an opportunity to propose bold, visionary initiatives. In fact, such an opportunity could present itself if and when both parties actually begin negotiating in earnest on a “grand bargain” to reduce our long-term budget deficits. We should be ready with ideas that can capture the attention of the American public while also accomplishing the strategic goals of transportation investment. These are my ideas – what are yours?
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.