Planning, Not Pork, in Transportation Funding

On June 25 I was privileged to participate in a conference call media briefing with five local transit and planning advocates on House Transportation Committee chairman James Oberstar (D.-MN)'s $500 billion surface transportation stimulus/funding bill. The consensus of the panel was that the bill provides much needed funding but still lacks some key elements, most prominently performance measures and a heavier mass transit emphasis, to effect meaningful change in national transportation policy.
Illinois stands to gain significant monies from the 775-page Oberstar-Mica
Surface Transportation Authorization Act of 2009 ("STAA") introduced in Congress on June 22. A shorter summary is available online as well.

The stated purpose of the legislation is:
To transform Federal surface transportation to a performance-based framework to reduce fatalities and injuries on our Nation's highways, address the mobility and access needs of people and goods, improve the condition, performance, and connectivity of the United States intermodal surface transportation system, provide transportation choices for commuters and travelers, promote environmental sustainability, public health, and the livability of communities, support robust investment in surface transportation, and for other purposes.

The bill gives attention to needed repairs in our transportation system, as well as a focus on regional-level transportation (as opposed to only state or local-level funding). However, as
Transportation for America's James Corliss notes, an important question about the massive funding is, "What does money get spent on once it gets to your state?" The question is unanswered in this bill. TFA urges that there be no new national transportation funding without spending controls reform.

Another bill, H.R. 2724, the
National Transportation Objectives Act of 2009 introduced by Rep. Rush Holt (D.-NJ), and currently pending in the transportation committee, does more to ensure some national performance measures.

Performance targets are also favored by groups such as the
Metropolitan Planning Council, which supports the recommendations of the National Transportation Policy Project (NTPP) on how to change national investment in roads and public transportation.

Historically, surface transportation contracts have been an area in which considerable questionable spending concerns arose. Like
MPC I favor a bill such as H.B. 2359, the Transportation Investment Accountability Act introduced by State Rep. Kathleen Ryg (D.-Vernon Hills) this last session.

Jacky Grimshaw of the Center for Neighborhood Technology noted during the briefing that gentrification in cities is leading to wholesale displacement of low-income populations to the suburbs, where they then face fewer transportation choices, and thus end up spending more on transportation, sometimes more than they save by fleeing to cheaper housing. I believe that any housing-centered policy has to address the increasing decentralization of jobs in the Chicago metropolitan area, a large factor in luring workers out of the city. There is a "job-housing mismatch," and jobs creation should be one of the "outcomes" by which peformance of a transportation policy should be measured.

Because current revenues provided only about half of the monies called for in STAA, new taxes are required, with a national gasoline tax increase being an obvious target; this makes it especially important that money be wisely spent.

One problem with STAA is its continued focus on roads. The formula for spending, currrently an 80/20 ratio of road funding to mass transit funding, changes to only 78/22 in the bill.

The STAA funding amounts to enormous sums, and if the bill passes, where and how it is spent will make a difference in most Illinoisans' lives, in ways from the massive cost of congestion to the number of traffic fatalities. It's critical that funding at both the national and state level reflect careful and conscious planning, and performance standards, to prevent what should be an implementation of purposeful policy instead becoming a massive dose of pork to the same old recipients.

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