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Transportation Quandary: ‘Anyone Listening Out There?’

Neal Peirce / Jan 16 2010

For Release Sunday, January 17, 2010
© 2009 Washington Post Writers Group

Neal Peirce WASHINGTON — Most everyone agrees that efficient roads, rails and air service are vital for our economy and our quality of life. Most of us see that without them, America will have a hard time competing against rising powers worldwide.

So why is Congress stalling? Representatives and senators know well that the federal transportation program expired last September. They keep passing temporary extensions without facing up to core issues–for example the federal gas tax stuck at 18.4 cents a gallon, unchanged for 17 years, despite escalating asphalt and concrete prices.

And why do we keep on paving over more and more of our landscape instead of embracing a “fix it first” strategy? Can’t we make our roads and transit investments match our housing choices in a “post-sprawl” era? Why aren’t regions being told that they had better link roads, rail and available air service for a smarter “intermodal” future?

The easy answer is always that Congress is too busy with the health bill and other crowded agendas. Bridges aren’t collapsing very often. Road congestion is bothersome, but we have little faith in expanded roadways either. Plus, people are more excited by the Obama administration’s embrace of a national “high-speed” rail system than more miles of asphalt.

So there was scarcely a ripple when Felix Rohatyn, respected and veteran civic leader, warned that “America’s roads and bridges–the country’s entire infrastructure–is rapidly and dangerously deteriorating.”

Steve Heminger, director of the Bay Area Metropolitan Transportation Commission, is quoted as bemoaning: “Is anyone listening out there?” Transportation expert Kenneth Orski even warns that the second jobs stimulus measure the Obama administration is likely to recommend could be a “death warrant” for full-scale transportation reform because it will likely include some quick road repair funds.

Most transportation experts think the gas tax is not only on its last legs, but should be replaced by some kind of electronically monitored system measuring how many miles a car is actually driven. But the idea likely needs lots of testing and the White House, in a recession economy, is opposed.

So what do we get? A series of short-term program extensions, forcing Congress to make up for declining gas tax proceeds with general revenue funds–i.e, deficit spending. In the process most dollars are left flowing through traditional transportation “stovepipes” that are tilted heavily to roads over transit, traffic “throughput” over community livability.

Where we ought to be heading, says John Robert Smith, president and CEO of the reform group Reconnecting America, is an “intermodal” future in which road, rail and air service are all tightly connected rather than disjointed and competing.

And Smith, a Republican who built a high quality multimodal downtown terminal as mayor of Meridian, Miss., then served as chairman of the Amtrak board of directors, has high hopes that transportation reauthorization can avoid the bitter partisanship that now infects Congress:

“For Republicans, this is a national security issue, freedom from foreign oil and more Chinese debt. It’s brick and mortar and steel that will bring a return on investment, promoting business opportunities. On the Democratic side, it’s about equity, connecting people, broadening transportation choices.”

Transportation hasn’t typically been a partisan issue, notes Emil Frankel, former Transportation Department official and currently transportation policy director of the Washington-based Bipartisan Policy Center. But Frankel cautions that this time party differences might surface if climate and energy issues start to play a significant role.

“An even bigger obstacle to reform,” he says, “could be opposition of existing stakeholders–from construction firms and unions to transit operators–all trying to protect and expand funding they receive under current programs.”

Add up the potential pitfalls and it’s indeed hard to see Congress acting early, despite a comprehensive reauthorization bill introduced last year by Rep. James Oberstar (D-Minn.). What’s more, members may flinch at daring to pass a multi-billion dollar authorization measure just before the midterm elections.

Alas! Rohatyn and others are right–our infrastructure is crumbling. We do need a system that values performance over special interest protection. We need state transportation departments to place a priority on maintenance and cater to fewer politically-motivated bridges–or roads–to nowhere.

And for the future, in this overwhelmingly metropolitan nation, we need explicit, clear transportation choices made in and for our city regions. The existing MPO (metropolitan planning organization) model for transportation choices needs a serious shakeup–starting with fair apportionment and demanding only one MPO in each metro region, not the splintered structures some regions now exhibit.

It’s only at the metro level, notes Smart Growth Leadership Institute chairman Parris Glendening, that there can be truly effective links of transportation with housing, economic competitiveness, carbon reduction, reducing vehicle miles traveled and promoting national security by reducing energy consumption.

It’s a massive challenge. The consequence if we miss it: a less livable, less prosperous America.


Neal Peirce’s e-mail is npeirce@citistates.com.

For reprints of Neal Peirce’s column, please contact Washington Post Permissions, c/o PARS International Corp., WPPermissions@parsintl.com, fax 212-221-9195. For newspaper syndication sales, Washington Post Writers Group, 202-334-5375, wpwgsales@washpost.com.

6 Comments

  1. Posted January 17, 2010 at 10:54 am | Permalink

    In the Jan/Feb. 2010 Atlantic Magazine, James Fallows (“How America Can Rise Again”) provides little hope that the U.S. Government will cease arguing over the arrangement of the deck chairs and instead work on fixing the holes in our foundering ship of state. Referencing the American Society of Civil Engineers, Fallows states that the ASCE has graded our engineering infrastructure a “D” grade overall; critical national infrastructure (roads, dams, municipal water supplies) was graded as low as D- with a 2.2 trillion dollar price tag to fix things. Small wonder bridges are falling down.

    At some point we are going to have to reach a national consensus on what things are critical and get started while we still have the ability to do so. This will mean refraining from frittering away our remaining national wealth on pothole patching and pork barrel politics and instead working towards focussed comprehensive urban planning and a “carbon-lite” America. But neither Fallows nor I let the individual off the hook either: we will have to put far less emphasis on Ipods, gas guzzlers, McMansions, and projection TVs and more on writing a check to our state, local, and national government so we can fix what is broken rather than, like a sinkhole working its way to the surface, our ills swallow us whole.

    I wish us luck and thank folks like Messrs. Peirce, Fallows, and Marshall for their efforts at waking us up.

  2. Posted January 17, 2010 at 11:55 am | Permalink

    As John Maynard Keynes would say, there will be a very dark side to their political expediency and, to be brief, once again we’ll see that special interests will “win” while greater society as a whole “loses.”

    http://placemakinginstitute.wordpress.com/2009/12/16/contriving-multi-modal-contrivances/

  3. Mark Spitzer
    Posted January 18, 2010 at 11:29 am | Permalink

    We’re currently a polarized country. To build successful Metro regions with balanced land use and transportation infrastructures, we’re going to have to stop yelling and all gather around the same table. It’s going to have to start in the individual regions. Washington is grid-locked by partisanship and corporate dollars. Maybe we need to start studying and promoting the success stories (Portland, OR?). Americans are good at adopting success (i-phone anyone?). Let’s understand and expand on the land use and transportation i-phones.

  4. Jim Vance
    Posted January 21, 2010 at 1:12 pm | Permalink

    So long as politicos and wired-in state-level bureaucrats who feed (and are fed by) big-money contractors can embed disingenuous language or outright falsehoods in metropolitan transportation plans, project-related environmental documents, and local bond elections regarding the land-use implications of constructing new highways (particularly those on new alignments in rural fringe areas), it will not be possible to re-orient the economic machine which has produced the postwar US urban landscape. Money talks (even more convincingly with the latest Supreme Court decision)….

  5. Robert Justice
    Posted January 21, 2010 at 9:05 pm | Permalink

    Dear Neal:
    For this and any of your desires for Citistates to be achieved will require a vision by President Obama. If he would come out with a grand plan to revive our economy based on changing our energy from fossil fuels to nuclear, rebuild our railways system with the target of removing long haul truck travel and throw at $2 per gallon gasoline tax to help build mass transit systems in our metropolitan areas it can be done over the next 50 years. Of course we will have to rebuild our steel and building materials industries. If he doesn’t challenge us like Kennedy did with travel to the moon we can kiss all of this goodby.

  6. Neal Peirce
    Posted January 30, 2010 at 10:48 pm | Permalink

    Comment from Daniel Sebald:
    Amusing story: I ordered am Amtrak ticket to St. Louis, then called around to find a car rental in the city open on a Sunday. No dice. Calls transfered to national office, etc. I try a downtown office a block from the Amtrak depot one more time and after a couple minutes the attendant says, You could take the city train out to our airport booth. (I was unaware of the new Amtrak depot and the light rail system with a stop just outside Amtrak.) Oh, that works! The light rail was packed like sardines just after a ballgame. Don’t know if you’ve seen St. Louis’ new three blocks of water jets and fountains for kids like what Chicago added–that was a big hit in the middle of August.