Friday, June 26, 2009

A Blueprint for Transportation Reform

By Marc Korman.

The Transportation and Infrastructure (T&I) Committee of the House of Representatives recently released a bipartisan proposal for a major surface transportation bill. The blueprint is worth reading because it gives a nice overview of federal surface transportation programs and some potential reforms. If eventually passed, it could also have an impact in Maryland.

The bipartisan package was written by the Chairmen and Ranking Members of the full T&I Committee and the Subcommittee on Highways and Transit as a proposal for the multi-year surface transportation authorization bill. The legislation determines how gas taxes and other transportation revenues will be allocated over a multi-year period on roads, transit, and rail lines. The proposal is just a first step in a lengthy process to get a bill passed. So far, the President has indicated he does not even want long term legislation, just a short term extension of the current law so transportation revenue can continue flowing to the states. There is also the nagging question of how to pay for the estimated $450 billion package, with the Administration refusing to support a gas tax increase.

But political challenges aside, the plan contains a lot of good ideas and is indicative of the direction of federal transportation policy. The blueprint seeks to consolidate many disparate lines of funding into fewer, but more flexible, programs. Some programs will also become modal neutral, meaning funds can be accessed for transit programs as easily as highways. It also includes a national infrastructure bank, which would leverage government funding with private sector resources to stretch transportation dollars farther. Of course, private funding means projects will have to provide some type of revenue stream such as tolls. In order to ensure any tolls or public private partnerships are in the interests of the public, the bill establishes a new Office of Public Benefit to assess these proposals.

Importantly for Maryland, the bill would also reform the Federal Transit Administration’s (FTA) New Starts program. The New Starts program is where the state hopes to obtain federal funding for the Purple Line and Corridor Cities Transitway. Currently, FTA puts almost all of its emphasis on the Cost Effectiveness Index (CEI), which has required states and localities seeking New Starts funds to do the same in their plans. The CEI looks at the amount of travel time saved by a project versus its costs. Relying so heavily on the CEI means the FTA is ignoring other factors such as pollution reduction, the effect of suburban sprawl, public transportation mobility, technical capability of applicants, and other factors that are included in the law, but virtually ignored by the FTA. CEI’s dominance is part of the reason most observers believe the Corridor Cities Transitway will have to be Bus Rapid Transit as opposed to rail, because unlike the Purple Line it would have great difficulty meeting CEI requirements.

Both Elijah Cummings and Donna Edwards serve on the T&I Committee and should support a great deal of the proposal. They need to hear from state and local legislators on the importance of improving federal transportation programs, particularly transit programs. Maryland should also look to the legislators who drafted the bill for inspiration in moving forward with state based transportation solutions.