Is there an American Transportation Policy?

In 1991 the Congress declared the end of the decades long public works program we know as the Interstate Highway system. Inspired by the German autobahn and horrified by the efficiency of the Nazi war machine, President Dwight Eisenhower envisioned a high speed network of roadways between cities to allow fast deployment of armies in event of invasion. (Originally, the interstate freeways were to end at the edge of cities, not plow through them but that is another sad tale of Congressional pork-barreling best saved for another day.)

50 years and oh so many trillions of dollars later, just about anywhere you might want to go (and some places you wouldn’t) have a 4-10 lane, limited access highway. So, what to do when the big suck of highway building is done? It was called ISTEA, the Intermodal Surface Transportation Act of 1991. This 6 year re-authorization of federal transportation spending included a huge shift in policy; made spending categories flexible and gave more spending authorities to metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs). There were set asides for non-highway projects and the idea that people need transportation options like transit, bikeways and sidewalks became federal policy.

14 years later, what is in the new transportation spending bill just passed by Congress? Given the anti-diluvean, reality-averse character of the ruling party (intelligent design?), the good news is that most of the reforms of ISTEA remain. And some good new additions were made like $600M for Safe Routes to School and a small increase in planning funds for metropolitan areas. Oregon’s delegation is also increasing its clout, with Rep. DeFazio playing a major role in bringing home the earmark bacon–returning to Oregon more money than we pay in federal gas taxes. But earmarks make up only about 10% of the total $286Billion in the bill yet get most of the attention.

The money is heavily skewed towards building new roads, which pleases the land developers who get new lands opened up at public expense, but doesn’t include enough to keep the existing roadway network functioning (one of the big earmarks Rep. DeFazio got was $160M for fixing bridges on I-5. But Oregonians are paying $2.5 Billion of their own money to fix bridges on the national highway system (I-5 and I-84) including bonding of most future modernization revenue leaving most other state projects withering on the vine).

Highway projects continue to get a massive federal overmatch of 80% (raised to 90% in Oregon, again thanks to DeFazio) and require little in the way of justification while transit projects go through a process that could have been devised by Torquemada and typically get only 50% federal funding.

By default, American transportation policy continues to serve the interests of a few: the truckers (who fight desperately any “subsidies” of the more efficient rail system), land developers and the automobile-industrial complex. It is also anti-city (blue-red?) because cities don’t need more roads, they need functioning alternatives to commuting by car which would also free up road space for freight movement to keep these economic centers humming. Contrast this to European and Asian countries that use high gasoline taxes and highway tolls to develop comprehensive, convenient and speedy transit systems that give people real choice in how they travel, support high quality urban environments and support the economy.

Add to the fire an Energy Bill that continues to heavily subsidize oil and gas companies (as Oregon’s gasoline prices hit record highs—what’s happened to the free market, guys?) and ignore alternatives…

I guess I’ve answered my question, “Does America have a Transportation Policy?”

Americans will keep on driving until the oil runs out.

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