Streetsblog Capitol Hill Q&A: Four Questions For Rob Puentes

America’s
transportation and infrastructure policies affect literally everyone
who moves from place to place in the country, but often they are
under-discussed and over-simplified by the mainstream media. To help
broaden the debate, Streetsblog Capitol Hill is kicking off a new
Q&A series called "The Four Questions."

puentesr_portrait.jpgRobert Puentes, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program (Photo: Brookings)

The
goal is simple: Every week, a different person will weigh in on the
same four queries about the future of the nation’s built environment.
The questions will remain the same, in order to provoke a thoughtful
exchange of views on the biggest challenges facing transportation
policymakers — but the range of participants will be limitless.

Our guest for the inaugural Four Questions is Robert Puentes, a senior fellow
at the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program (MPP) and a
prolific analyst of growth and development issues. (Check out more from
the MPP at its blog, The Avenue.)

Any suggestions for future participants in The Four Questions? Let us know in the comments.

1.
Transportation planning — the evaluation and construction of transit,
road, and bridge projects — is often considered primarily a state and
local issue. What specific type of role should the federal government
should have in the mix?

We’ve actually proposed a three-pronged strategy for our national transportation program.

First, the federal government should lead in those areas where there
are clear demands for national uniformity, or else to match the scale
and geographic reach of certain problems. We must define, design, and
embrace a new, unified vision for transportation policy. Its focus
should be on infrastructure investments that support the
competitiveness and environmental sustainability of the nation rather
than on funding individual states or spending on singular needs.

The
federal government should create a National Infrastructure Bank (NIB)
able to select and finance large, multi-modal and multi-jurisdictional
infrastructure projects on a merit basis. The NIB would be the window
through which states, groups of states, and metropolitan areas would
request financing or grants for a range of infrastructure projects —
from road and rails to ports and pipes. The federal government would
provide initial capital that NIB would use to issue bonds. The Treasury
would pay the interest on the bonds and it would act as a lender of
last resort for the principal of the NIB loans. The proceeds from the
bonds would be used to finance major projects proposed by public
entities (states, municipalities, agencies).

Yet while there
are clearly areas of physical infrastructure development where the
federal government needs to lead, Washington also needs to put itself
squarely in the service of state, local, and business leaders whose
knack for solving problems has always driven this country forward.

The
current federal system compels states and metro areas to apply for
resources from multiple agencies and abide by the disparate, often
conflicting rules of dozens of  programs. A more sensible system would
place metro areas in the lead by challenging Washington to align
federal investments with locally driven "metropolitan business plans"
that lay out regional growth strategies and link local steering to
rigorous performance measurements.

But
beyond leading in some areas and empowering regions in others, the
federal government needs to pursue a frank and rigorous debate about
how to make better investment decisions. To begin with, the nation
needs to develop evidence-based programs structured around broad
national goals; it should be up to the federal transportation partners
on the state and metro level to demonstrate how they will meet or
exceed those goals. There is, after all, substantial federal precedent
for such national accountability in education and welfare policy. Why
should infrastructure investments — with their major implications for
U.S. economic growth — go without such discipline?

And
yet, in order to commit to an evidence-based program, a major overhaul
is needed in how the nation collects, assembles, and provides data and
information. And so the U.S. needs a world-class data and information
system ("InfraStat") that is powerful, comprehensive, and accessible to
the general public. From proper measurement, in short, will come
performance — and innovation.

2. As the
gas tax loses some of its value in an era of more fuel-efficient
vehicles, should it be increased or abandoned in favor of a new system
of transportation financing? Or should both options be in play?

Just
as transportation is not an end in and of itself, neither is increasing
funding the primary solution to the nation’s transportation problems.
However, because of the short term conundrum of the
federal government obligating more federal money for transportation
than it has
to spend and the disdain for the annual rescissions, many are calling
for the
next Congress and the new President to increase the federal gas tax.
This puts
the cart before the horse.

Simply put: we should not continue to pour more money
into a dysfunctional system before serious attempts at significant policy
reform. In other words, the federal transportation program is not just broke;
it is broken. The funding debate needs to shift from spending more and more
taxpayer dollars on the same product to where, what, and how to spend that
money better. So in addition to just focusing on increasing revenues for the
existing program the nation deserves a real conversation about curbing the
demand for transportation spending. It is impossible to start with a funding
solution or what the optimal level of investment should be when there is no
agreement about what the federal role should be, what problems we are trying to
solve, or what questions we are trying to answer.

[Former deputy Transportation Secretary] Mort Downey
has pointed out that no major federal transportation reform has ever occurred
without a major increase in revenues. This should be another one of those
times.

We need a clear articulation of the goals and
objectives of the federal program, and the desired outcomes. The program should
then be structured to get to those outcomes. At that time, all options toward
reinvigorating transportation funding should be on the table to meet the
transportation challenges of the future while also ensuring financial revenues
will be available.

3.
The lion’s share of federal transportation funding is sent through
state DOTs that then pass aid on to major cities. Do you think this
approach allows urban, suburban, and rural needs to be fully met?

The intent established in the ISTEA legislation of
1991 to elevate the importance of metropolitan decision-making to better align
with the geography of regional economies, commuting patterns, and social
reality has largely been subverted. Federal transportation policy has only
haltingly recognized metros’ centrality to transportation outcomes, and
continues to assign states the primary role in transportation planning and
programming.

Left to their own devices, most states have not
embraced the intent of federal law and have not devolved sufficient powers and
responsibilities to their metropolitan areas. They remain the principal
decision-makers on transportation projects, including those within metropolitan
areas. Many state DOTs still wield considerable formal and informal power and
retain authority over substantial state transportation funds.

One positive step to enhance metropolitan decision
making was the sub-allocation of funds directly to the regional and local
government structures initiated by ISTEA. This helped strengthen metropolitan
areas by changing the decision-making body for a portion of the overall funding,
giving local officials the ability to spend federal transportation funds based
on the unique needs of their region. However, the reality is that these funds
still make up only a very small share of the overall funding pie. Taken
together, federal law only gives metropolitan areas direct control over a small
share of road and bridge funding under SAFETEA-LU. This misalignment has led to
a dramatic shift in the way funds are raised in major metropolitan areas as
these places are increasingly turning to voter-approved “local option
taxes” to pay for certain metropolitan-scale projects.

Funding analyses in several states show how these
biases harm metropolitan areas. These areas contribute significantly more in
tax receipts than they receive in allocations from their state’s highway
fund or through direct local transfers. In other words, although the
donor/donee debate is alive and well on the national level between states, that
same rationale — logical or otherwise — does not appear to have had
anywhere near the same impact on spatial funding allocation within states.

4.
Transportation contributes 30 percent of America’s total CO2 emissions.
Do you think a national cap-and-trade system should proportionally
address this problem? If not, how should it be addressed?

To improve the environment, several states as well as
the federal government have already articulated a desire to reduce
transportation-related mobile source emissions in order to confirm with the
transportation provisions of the Clean Air Act. We should go further and in
addition to a net reduction in carbon dioxide emissions a reduced dependence on
foreign oil is also critical (which is a clear benefit to the national
economy). To that end, the federal program should support all three legs of the
stool—vehicle efficiency, fuels standards and alternatives, as well as
demand reduction strategies promoting efficient development patterns,
telecommuting, and increasing travel options for people and goods. Related to
the above question, a carbon tax is a good idea as an environmentally-motivated
tax that could potentially generate revenues for a range of transportation
choices such as transit.

  • Sprague

    Thank you, Streetsblog, for providing such a broad array of articles and films. I don’t have a comment on this specific article but I am glad that one can always find interesting and informative pieces and discussions at Streetsblog.

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