Transportation in America was once an engine of progress and an inspiration for the future. Railroads opened the West and automobiles brought new mobility for a footloose nation after World War II.
Nowadays, getting around has become a source of problems, rather than solutions. Traffic delays now waste an average of 38 hours a year for urban commuters — almost an entire work week and more than twice as much as in 1985. The major source of our nation’s addiction to expensive foreign oil, transportation consumes two out of every three barrels and is the fastest-growing source of global warming pollution. The cost of more than $100 a barrel oil and crumbling infrastructure are drags on the economy. And the once-flush federal transportation trust fund and many of its state counterparts are forecast to run out of money in the next two years.
Since fulfilling President Eisenhower’s 1956 vision of an interstate highway system to link our major cities, national transportation policy has stumbled on without a clear purpose. Federal transportation spending has become little more than a giant public works program. In the absence of a defined strategy, individual legislators’ success is often judged by how many federal dollars are brought home for projects in the district, while the nation’s infrastructure has largely deteriorated.
To keep our nation moving efficiently, the federal government must ensure dedicated funding and hold states accountable for upkeep of existing roadways. At present, the responsibility is left almost entirely up to states, where it competes for scarce general revenue dollars with popular programs and typically loses out to expensive new projects.
Federal transportation funds have also continued to be distributed through the false assumption that more is better when it comes to roadways. States currently receive highway funds based on three outdated criteria: the previous year’s gasoline consumption, lane-miles of federal highways, and the previous year’s vehicle miles traveled. More driving, in other words, garners more federal dollars. States that do their part to reduce America’s oil dependence and global warming pollution would reduce growth of these same measures, and would lose out on federal dollars.
The federal government should be rewarding states and localities that reduce the number of gallons of gasoline Americans consume and the number of miles they need to drive by placing a far greater emphasis on public transportation. Light rail, rapid bus transit, commuter rail, high-speed intercity rail and other forms of public transit save oil because they are more energy efficient and encourage development patterns that require less driving.
According to a recent report by the Arizona PIRG Education Fund, public transit saved 3.4 billion gallons of oil in 2006. This translated into $9 billion dollars saved at the pump and prevented 26 million tons of global warming emissions. Public transit trips have been growing faster than auto miles or population since 1995. Likewise, 53 percent of Americans tell pollsters that they would like to take more public transportation if it is available near where they live and work.
Giving people the transportation choices they want will require Congress to make changes. Since 1956, federal, state, and local governments have spent nine times more on highway subsidies than on public transportation. This ratio has improved, but not fast enough. In fact, President Bush’s proposed 2009 budget would take us back in time by cutting federal transit money by $200 million, slashing Amtrak’s budget by 40 percent, and diverting $3.2 billion dollars from the federal transit account to highways. Such cuts would move the country in exactly the wrong direction.
Congress will have a golden opportunity when the current transportation authorization bill expires next year. Public leaders must recognize that our transportation problems stem from a lack of purpose and must rewrite transportation policy to address contemporary problems of rapidly aging infrastructure, urban congestion, oil dependence, and an overheating planet. Instead of simply “reauthorizing” the existing transportation act with higher spending levels, Congress must reinvent how it funds transportation.
Diane E. Brown is the executive director of the Arizona Public Interest Research Group, a statewide public interest advocacy organization.