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Chicagoland Fri Jun 26 2009

Transportation Funding Needs Reform to Optimize Illinois Impact

Five local transit and planning advocates held a media briefing via conference call on June 25 to elevate the attention level of House Transportation Committee chairman James Oberstar (D.-MN)'s $500 billion surface transportation stimulus/funding bill, as well as to call for improvements in the 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.

Oberstar and Rep. John Mica (R.-FL) released the full draft text of the 775-page Surface Transportation Authorization Act of 2009 ("STAA") on Monday, June 22. A shorter 17-page summary was made available the week before. Fuller account below.

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.

In the media briefing, Transportation for America's James Corliss took the lead, praising the bill's 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. Corliss noted that an important question about the massive funding was, "What does money get spent on once it gets to your state?" In answer to a follow-up, Corliss agreed that the question was unanswered in this bill. He urged that there be national performance measures, and directed attention to 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.

A closer look at the TFA website shows that TFA in fact urges that there be no new national transportation funding without spending controls reform.

Peter Skosey of the Metropolitan Planning Council likewise agreed that performance targets were as necessary as transportation investment itself. The MPC supports the recommendations of the National Transportation Policy Project (NTPP) on how to change national investment in roads and public transportation. Skosey also highlighted the important link between federal funding and state prioritization of transportation projects. I observed that historically, surface transportation contracts were an area in which considerable questionable spending concerns arose. Skosey notes that MPC favors a bill such as H.B. 2359, the Transportation Investment Accountability Act introduced by State Rep. Kathleen Ryg (D.-Vernon Hills) this last session, but which like too many good bills was sent to the Rules Committee and has not since been seen.

The call for national goals was echoed by Jacky Grimshaw of the Center for Neighborhood Technology. She commended the establishment of an office for "liveabilty" in the bill but stated that the legislation is still missing the link between housing, land use, and transportation. Grimshaw stated 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 asked how a housing-centered policy could work without addressing the increasing de-centralization of jobs in the Chicago metropolitan area, which many observers feel is as great a factor in luring workers out of the city. Grimshaw agreed that there is a "job-housing mismatch" and that jobs creation should be one of the "outcomes" by which peformance of a transportation policy should be measured.

Greg Hinz of Crain's asked how the funding called for in Oberstar's bill compared, overall, to current spending. The panel conceded that current revenues provided only about half of the monies called for in STAA. Thus new taxes are required, with a national gasoline tax increase being an obvious target.

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 78/22 in the bill, which one panelist termed "not significant."

Also contributing to the high-powered conversation were Briam Imus, the state director of PIRG, who urged more stable transportation funding that moved away from a dependence on volatile gas prices, and Kevin Brubaker, Deputy Director of the Environmental Law & Policy Center, who applauded the federal move toward high-speed rail, which ELPC has long supported. Imus's observation was timely considering this week's revelation of impending Chicagoland mass transit cuts as a result of decreased tax revenues, which in turn have fallen because of the recessionary economy.

As observed by Adam Doster at Progress Illinois, transportation policy is being somewhat overshadowed by other matters, such as the national health care debate and the energy bill. However, this funding amounts to enormous sums, and where and how it is spent will make a difference in millions of lives, in ways from the massive national 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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lexslamman / June 26, 2009 10:41 PM

Are you kidding? The Surface Transportation Authorization Act of 2009 gives almost $100 billion for public transit. What we should be doing is writing our congressmen in support of this bill and in support of getting our districts money from this pool of money.

Sandra / July 3, 2009 9:29 AM

Lex, your comment that we should be "getting our districts money from this pool of money" is exactly the problem that Jeff is trying to address. Transportation funding can't be about "how can I get mine", it needs to be based on purpose and need and an overall plan that moves us towards important goals like sustainability and improved quality of life.

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