Friday, May 22, 2009

Senator Hutchison and Tolling

It was reported today in BNA's Transportation Watch that Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison introduced a bill on May 21st to ban tolls on existing federal highways. "The bill would bar states, private companies, or public-private partnerships from creating tolls on federal highway, bridges, or tunnels paid for with federal funding." Senator Hutchison argues that tolls are only a band-aid solution to meeting transportation funding needs, and that tolls exacerbate congestion and divert traffic in harmful ways. Another bill the Senator introduced last month would allow states to opt-out of the federal highway program and keep all the gas tax revenue they generate - releasing them from federal program restrictions. We see two issues here that need to be addressed: 1) a clear contradiction between the two bills the Senator has introduced, and 2) a misconception about the purpose and use of tolls.

The contradiction between these two bills is that one would give states maximum flexibility to do what they want, and the other severely limits that ability. These two approaches are virtual opposites. If Senator Hutchison believes that states know best how to deal with their transportation issues, it is unclear why she would also believe that an approach that completely limits a state's ability to toll roads would be valuable. Neither of these approaches is necessarily wrong, but when viewed as coming from the same person it is confusing (her views may be linked to issues surrounding the Trans-Texas Highway, which is a good blog topic in the future). Surely there is a middle way that recognizes a federal role in transportation - setting goals and allocating money to national purposes - yet also gives states maximum flexibility to meet those federal goals in whichever way works best for them.

This leads to the second point regarding Senator Hutchison's strong aversion to tolling. The primary concern she has is that tolling is a band-aid solution to funding. That is true. Tolling alone cannot possibly serve as the primary source of transportation funds, but in some areas it may provide useful revenue. More importantly, tolling can be an appropriate tool not just for raising funds but for actually improving the performance of the system. Smart tolling to manage congestion raises money, yes, but it also acts to make sure that traffic flows smoothly - improving commute times and letting people get where they're going faster. More broadly, tolling is one of many methods of more accurately charging users for their use of the transportation system. That is a concept that NTPP strongly supports. By paying closer to the full cost of their use, users themselves will see major improvements, especially with less traffic.

At a fundamental level, Senator Hutchison's recent proposals express two important ideas: a band-aid approach to transportation funding is not the right approach, and state flexibility in decision-making is important. The actual legislation could use refinement, however, because the policies that are targeted in the bills are not the right ones to go after.

-Daniel Lewis

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Earmarks in Transportation Legislation

Several troubling reports about draft transportation legislation have emerged in recent days. One, as reported in Congressional Quarterly, seems ripped from the headlines of the Onion (a satirical paper), "Earmark Computer Crashes, Delaying Transportation Bill." A second, reported by Roll Call, reads "Oberstar Less Stringent on Earmarks." Despite the unwanted notoriety Congress gained in the wake of the Bridge to Nowhere, earmarks still persist, and they remain a highly visible benchmark by which the public follows and judges transportation legislation.

The general concept behind earmarks is not misunderstood: people know that legislators want to "bring home the bacon" to their constituents. What is less clear are the negative secondary effects of this pork. Earmarks remain a relatively small part of the overall transportation budget, but like a canary dying in a coal mine they are indicative of more serious and deeper problems. The most pressing concern is that many earmarks are not directed to projects of national, or even regional, significance. Even if some of them are, they were not necessarily submitted or judged with that criteria in mind. Earmarks targeted for specific districts without any evaluation of their national merits are fundamentally at odds with the proposition that federal funds should be spent for national purposes, what we might call a "national compromise."

If earmarks play even half as prominent role as they did in the last authorization, the whole piece of legislation will most likely be tainted, regardless of its other merits. For better or worse, the public has never been able to engage in transportation debate at the national level like it can on many other issues. Transportation legislation is simply too opaque, too non-partisan, and the outcomes too detached, to draw anything but cursory attention from the general media, never inciting the sort of mass emails and faxes that topics like healthcare and gas prices engender. Without a clear sense of how to judge transportation legislation, the media and the public have latched onto earmarks as a leading metric of success. Deep down, people know that earmarks are not a positive example of what economists call the "invisible hand." What is good for them and their representative is not necessarily good for the nation as a whole. The sum of all earmarks is less than the parts.

If it is to be bold and effective, the next transportation authorization needs a broader base of public support than SAFETEA-LU. That will mean more transparency, more clarity about goals, more accountability, and more public support for the overall strategy - because the public needs to buy into however this new program will be funded. These concepts are also at the heart of a legitimate "national compromise." Regardless of their merits, earmarks simply must be contained and limited or else they will threaten every other aspect of reform.

-Daniel Lewis

Friday, May 8, 2009

The world's top cities with the best infrastructure

A new ranking of the most livable cities in the world was recently released by Mercer, an HR consultancy. One component of the ranking is a city's infrastructure, including transportation. Helpfully, they also release a ranking based purely on infrastructure. The results are striking. No US cities rank in the top ten. Three out of the top five in the Americas are Canadian cities (the other two are Atlanta and Washington, DC). This is not to say that US cities are inherently less competitive than those higher in the rankings, but it may, at the very least, indicate a perhaps serious competitive vulnerability, while highlighting the benefits possible from infrastructure improvement.

Key factors in Mercer's assessment were congestion levels, international air connections, and the availability of public transportation options. These are not necessarily appropriate goals for national policies focused on cities, but they do represent outcomes of specific policies. Congestion and public transport are intricately tied to land use policies, pricing policies, and long term investment decisions. Air connections are, in part, affected by intermodal connections to airports and easy connections with downtowns. Moreover, these outcomes that Mercer measures are, in many ways, means to bigger goals such as economic growth, environmental protection and national connectivity. Those are the sort of national policy goals that the National Transportation Policy Project advocates for, and such a federal approach would certainly induce the sort of outcomes that Mercer looks so favorably upon.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Bipartisan Policy Center's Politics on Film Festival

As part of the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Politics on Film festival, which begins this weekend, we invite you to attend a screening of the film “Sprawling From Grace” on Saturday, May 9th, at 3:30pm at the GW Marvin Center Amphitheatre to be followed by a panel discussion. The panel will include some of the transportation field’s leading thinkers, including:

• Joshua Schank and Emil Frankel from the National Transportation Policy Project
• Noted scholar Alan Pisarski
• Polly Trottenberg, Executive Director of Building America’s Future
• David Edwards, the film’s director

For more information about the film itself, you can check out its website You can also visit the film festival’s website at Tickets to the screening are $10 and can be purchased at the door, and a pass for all of the festival’s films can be purchased online for $35.

The address of the GW Amphitheatre is:

The George Washington University
Marvin Center Amphitheatre, third floor
800 21st Street, NW, Washington, D.C.
Foggy Bottom-GWU Metro Station (Orange and Blue lines)

Thanks, and we hope to see you there.