New DOT Plan Aims to Drive Change

December 2008

NSPE TODAY
New DOT Plan Aims to Drive Change

BY SARAH OGDEN

In an effort to address mounting highway congestion, skyrocketing fuel prices, onerous gas taxes, and spending decisions "based on political influence instead of merit," the Department of Transportation has unveiled a new framework to overhaul the way U.S. transportation decisions and investments are made. The framework seeks to transcend politics by leaving the contentious issue of transportation funding for Congress and the president to haggle over, instead focusing on a comprehensive, strategic plan that prioritizes the nation's transportation needs.

"Without a doubt, our federal approach to transportation is broken. And no amount of tweaking, adjusting, or adding new layers on top will make things better," says Secretary of Transportation Mary Peters. "It is time for a new, a different, and a better approach." Secretary Peters criticized current transportation spending, citing "pet" projects such as restoring lighthouses as a source of waste not representative of the nation's needs.

The reform plan consolidates more than 100 federal transportation programs into just eight intermodal programs, which focus on improving the efficiency of transportation funding and roadways and giving communities greater freedom and more resources to finance new transit projects. The plan also introduces new sources of funding, such as the Metropolitan Mobility Program, which allocates funding to projects that address communities' strategic transit needs. The framework also advocates "congestion pricing," in which motorists are charged higher tolls during peak travel times to encourage the use of public transit and generate revenue to finance new transit programs.

The framework's key priorities include:
Maintaining and improving the interstate network. Interstate highways are critical to sustaining local economies, interstate commerce, and global trade. Though interstates comprise only 1% of the nation's roadways, about 25% of all highway miles traveled in the U.S. take place on interstates. The new framework aims to ensure the safety and efficiency of the interstate system and would use the Federal Interest Highway proposal and Highway Safety Improvement Program funding to improve infrastructure in rural areas, where a disproportionate number of highway fatalities occur.

Addressing urban congestion and giving state and local leaders more flexibility in how they invest in their transportation priorities. The framework creates the Metropolitan Innovation Fund to reward cities that combine prudent transit investment, dynamic highway pricing (including congestion pricing), and new traffic technologies. The plan also gives greater flexibility and resources to local planners to fund new public transit systems or highways through state infrastructure banks, private activity bonds, and expanded federal credit flexibility.

Creating metrics to ensure transportation investments deliver results. Transportation spending has increased by more than 100% over the past 10 years, yet congestion has risen by 300%. The new framework requires that all surface transportation projects be subjected to a cost-benefit analysis. Increased travel-time reliability, fewer delay-hours, and improved road and bridge conditions will be among the measures of success for transportation programs.

Reemphasizing safety using technology- and data-driven approaches while allowing states more flexibility to address their specific safety challenges. Though traffic safety has improved, more than 42,000 people still die on the nation's roadways every year. The framework recommends renewing focus on addressing persistent issues that endanger drivers, passengers, and pedestrians—especially crashes involving drunk drivers, motorcyclists, work zones, and rural roads.

Streamlining the federal review process for new transportation projects. Currently it takes an average of 13 years to design and build new highway and transit projects in the U.S., making some projects too expensive to complete. The framework establishes new approaches to streamline the federal environmental and planning processes without lessening stringency, taking critical projects from design to reality more quickly.
 
There have been few guesses as to how the presidential election might affect implementation of the new framework, but DOT clearly hopes that by deleting politics from the equation, it has developed a plan that will rise above partisan boundaries and outlive any single administration.