SAFETEA-LU, the funding and authorization bill that guides federal transportation spending, expired last year and a new bill is in the works. With each subsequent iteration, federal transportation bills have made more provisions for alternate modes, but highway spending still dominates. $40 million in the highway account is allowed to be used by states as flex funds for alternate modes, but the ultimate decision of how this money is used is up to state DOTs. Though I’m no expert in federal transportation policy, here are the things I think should be included in the next bill:
Gas tax alternatives – a vehicle miles tax (VMT) is an equitable way to tax people in proportion to how much they use our roads. The bank account will also take less of a hit as more fuel efficient vehicles fill the streets. It makes sense to charge people in proportion to the amount they use a service or good. Fuel consumption will soon be an outdated proxy for road usage.
Mandated multimodal funding – SAFETEA-LU marketeers made a big deal about flexible spending for alternate modes. Big deal. These spending decisions were mostly left up to state DOTs. This is fine if you’re in a progressive part of the country, but many state agencies still think highways are the bee’s knees (I love 1920′s slang). This is like giving a blank check to a crack addict. Just as there are dedicated funds for highways, there should be a mandated percentage of funds going to walking/biking/transit. Or give more power to MPOs and cities to decide how to spend the money.
Increase federal match for transit - say you want to build a highway. No problem. The feds will give you 90% of the cost. A new transit line? You’re lucky if you get a 60% match. This is partly due to the huge demand of the New Starts program and the dearth of funding available for such projects. Oh yea, and highways don’t pay for themselves, and transit shouldn’t be held to a more stringent standard which requires unrealistic “cost effectiveness” goals. Show me one cost effective highway.
Incentives for more domestic light rail/commuter rail car manufacturers. All this know-how is in Europe and Japan. We need to bring it here and base our manufacturing sector on sustainability instead of waste. Lately, when I walk by cars stuck in traffic, I see a racket. Huge subsidies given to car manufacturers, who in turn spew out millions of cars on asphalt roads which employ millions of contractors and engineers so even more people can have their own steel box which shuttles them around in the most wasteful, environmentally and physically harmful way possible. Why not put these subsidies into a product which has a future and is actually good for people?
Mark R. Brown