GOP-ers and Dems Agree: Feds Need to Get Their Transpo Act Together

Reports on federal transportation policy — like campaign
fundraisers and lobbying groups — seem to proliferate in Washington,
most of them drawing a few days’ worth of news coverage before fading
from memory. (Remember the National Surface Transportation Infrastructure Financing Commission and the National Surface Transportation Policy and Revenue Commission?)

slade.jpgFormer Sen. Slade Gorton (R-WA), one of the co-chairs of the BPC transportation project (Photo: AP)

But the Bipartisan Policy Center’s (BPC) National Transportation Policy Project
released a document this morning that hopefully will have a longer
public shelf life. The project’s 26 members, some of whom represent
familiar allies and foes
of livable streets advocates, managed to suggest a pretty
ground-breaking overhaul of transportation funding that aims to do what
many Streetsblog readers have longed for: put highways and transit on
an equal footing in competition for federal funds.

Former GOP senator turned lobbyist
Slade Gorton, one of the project’s co-chairman, described the report as
pushing lawmakers to support "the best investments, regardless of
whether" they are in transit, inter-city passenger rail or roads. The
BPC proposed winnowing down the U.S. DOT’s 108 programs to six, all of
which would award money in a "mode-neutral" fashion — that is, without
forcing transit to take a pre-determined, and tiny, slice of the
federal funding pie.

Perhaps because many of its members are
closely aligned with road-building interests, the project took an
artificially dismissive approach to the current inequities in the
system, lamenting that

many transportation
policy discussions continue to be dominated by endless debates about
what is more subsidized or disadvantaged: highways vs. transit, trucks
vs. rail, and passengers vs. freight.

It’s been proven pretty conclusively that highways don’t face a 77-year backlog, but leaving political antagonism aside gave the BPC project some room to embrace several other worthy conclusions.

Congress
is strongly urged to impose performance targets on all recipients of
federal transportation cash, with diminished CO2 emissions and
petroleum use becoming prominent and stated goals. On page 23 of the
report, lawmakers are reminded that (emphasis mine)

there
has been little systematic effort to take advantage of carbon
reductions available through transportation policies that promote reduced travel or the use of more efficient modes and travel alternatives.

It’s
nice to see the project members, who included prominent John McCain
backers as well as Obama-ites — BPC founder Jason Grumet was a prominent adviser
to the president during the campaign — remind the D.C. establishment
that getting people out of cars and onto transit pays off.

On
that note, both Gorton and former Democratic lawmaker Martin Sabo
called for a gradual transition away from the gas tax and towards a fee
on vehicle miles traveled (VMT), a prospect the Obama administration has nixed.

Even
one current GOP House member, Tom Petri (WI), dismissed critics of the
VMT-based approach: "People don’t seem to be concerned about privacy
with Garmins or cell phones," Petri observed, although "it’s the same technology" that likely would be used by the government to track VMT.

In addition to project members’ candor on a VMT tax, tucked on page 89 of the report is a thumbs-up for congestion pricing:

While
[the BPC project] does not wish to prescribe specific solutions,
congestion pricing is an extremely valuable tool for addressing the
economic, environmental and energy impacts of transportation
simultaneously.

The entire BPC report, available for download here,
is worth a look. But the best summation of its message was provided by
Robert Puentes, director of the Brookings Institutions’ Metropolitan
Policy Program.

"There was a lot of unanimity around one issue," Puentes said. "The federal government needs to get its act together."

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