There is much to like about President Obama’s new transportation proposal – the GROW America Act – that was transmitted to Congress this week. The proposal demonstrates that this Administration continues to be committed to increasing the federal investment in public transportation infrastructure, promoting policies that reward innovation, and empowering local communities to have a larger role in decision-making. However, when it comes to finding a long term, permanent solution to financing transportation, the GROW America Act once again falls short, as the Bush and Obama Administrations and multiple Congresses have in the past.
First, the good news. The GROW America Act proposes $72 billion for the federal public transportation program over the next four years, which would represent an average 70% annual increase over current funding levels. This would help bring our nation’s transit assets to a state of good repair, and connect millions of Americans to job opportunities by expanding transit access across the nation. In addition, the law would more than double the size of the popular TIGER program, which has supported innovative local transportation projects, many of which don’t fit the criteria of the federal government’s more traditional “formula” programs.
Another initiative aimed at encouraging innovation is termed the “Fixing and Accelerating Surface Transportation (FAST)” program. This initiative would provide $1 billion per year in discretionary grants to States and local communities to “incentivize the adoption of bold, innovative strategies and best practices in transportation that would have long-term impact on all projects across the transportation program.” Furthermore, 25% of FAST funds are set aside for “high performing” metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs). This provision recognizes that so much of the action is at the metropolitan scale, and that filtering federal money through the state governments doesn’t always get the funds to where they can do the most good.
Finally, the President’s proposal embraces and expands some of the positive project accountability measures introduced in the last transportation bill, MAP-21. The proposal recommends further streamlining of the project approval and implementation process at the DOT, and reaffirms the importance of local decision-makers using clearly defined performance measures in selecting projects. These reforms will help save stretched federal dollars by making the federal system more efficient and help restore public confidence in the federal transportation program. But the Administration’s promotion of the concept of performance measures will only be valuable if its own rule-making on just precisely what those performance measures are sets a high standard. Thus far, we have not seen a robust, comprehensive and innovative approach to performance measurement formally emerge from this Administration’s DOT, despite the lofty intentions expressed at the Secretarial level.
While the Administration’s GROW America Act contains several solid new programs and policy reforms, it is difficult to be overly optimistic about a proposal that fails to address how these items will be paid for and won’t provoke Congress to take the difficult steps of raising new revenue. The sad fact is that under current projections, there would only be enough money in the Highway Trust Fund (or newly proposed “Transportation Trust Fund”) to pay for about one half of what is proposed in the bill. The Administration claims that the shortfall will be covered from revenue generated through “business tax reform.” Any recent observer of Congress will tell you that the advent of that revenue stream is uncertain at best, and would advise transportation decision makers not to spend that money quite yet.
In the meantime, the President could use the administrative powers vested in him to promote meaningful reforms in the transportation program. For example, the Department of Transportation could reward innovation in the grant selection process for the TIGER program, implement further regulations to improve and streamline the project implementation process, and issue meaningful guidance on performance measures. If President Obama wants to emulate the transportation legacy of President Lincoln (who signed the act authorizing the transcontinental railroad) or President Eisenhower (who signed the act creating the interstate highway network), he will need to not just introduce a bill, but get Congress to pass it into law so that the President’s signature leads to construction.
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