No unified vision leaves lawmakers with a grab-what-you-can approach

Sen. Jim Bunning (R-Ky.) launched a filibuster last week that temporarily stopped the extension of federal unemployment benefits and blocked spending on federal transportation projects. The blogosphere praised and vilified Bunning, while Democrats and Republicans alike denounced his obstreperous behavior.

The dustup is more than an exercise in partisanship run amok on Capitol Hill. It highlights how dysfunctional America’s transportation policy has become. Lacking in vision, clear goals, and measurements for performance, transportation policy is devoid of accountability to the American people. Pet projects, funded by dwindling national resources, are now the unfortunate norm.

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Transportation policy wasn’t always so ineffectual. The New Deal constructed bridges, buildings and highways, which created jobs for the unemployed while laying the foundation for economic growth. It enhanced America’s urban landscapes blighted by early 20th century industrialization, and strengthened the National Park system from Shenandoah to Yosemite. The second visionary moment arrived in the form of Dwight D. Eisenhower’s 1956 Interstate Highway Act.

The legislation proved a boon to suburbs and improved national security, providing modern escape routes to city residents, and spurred inter- and intra-state commerce. Yet in more recent years, there’s been a noticeable lack of vision in our transportation policy. Witness that despite the fact that the current surface transportation law expired in October, the Obama administration has yet to provide a legislative roadmap for building a better infrastructure future.

Congress has increasingly regarded transportation legislation as mere grab-what-you-can opportunities to deliver pet projects to their constituents. If such projects aren’t necessarily all as ill conceived as Alaska’s notorious “Bridge to Nowhere,” these projects nevertheless leave a lot to be desired.

We are getting a much lower return for our investments in transportation than we should, and we are borrowing money to do so. Without a clear national purpose, surface transportation bills lack vision, and instead, legislative skirmishes focus exclusively on who gets how much money and for what projects.

The result is that we have little to no idea of what we are getting in return for our $50 billion or so per year that we spend on highways and public transit. Surprisingly to some, cost-benefit analyses are not typically performed for most transportation investments. There is little to no accountability for federal transportation dollars.

There are other harmful effects. This legislative process worsens the federal budget deficit. In prior decades, most of the federal transportation program was funded entirely by fuel taxes paid by motorists. But in the last few years Congress has spent beyond the revenue generated by fuel taxes while the gas tax’s real value has also declined. Transportation programs are now being regularly infused with chunks of general budget funds.

Congress should declare that it is tired of seeing money poured into a system that fails to demonstrate any clear progress toward achieving national goals. It should articulate specific goals for federal spending, such as economic growth, reducing the nation’s dependence on oil, and making our transit system safer and environmentally more sustainable, as the Bipartisan Policy Center’s National Transportation Policy Project has recommended.

Congress needs to start paying for its transportation programs by raising the federal gas tax. But more importantly, it needs to start developing specific performance metrics that can ensure that this money is well spent. As Congress dawdles in reauthorizing the surface transportation bill in 2010, it is wasting valuable time that could be used to better assure accountability and performance in future transportation legislation.

The Department of Transportation should begin working with states and metropolitan regions to develop appropriate data collection for national performance measures, and it needs to start on this project now. We should insist that we begin this effort before continuing to extend the current program and infuse it with endless general funding.

Such a policy — goals-oriented, performance-based — would demonstrate Congress’s ability to function as an effective legislative body. Reaching across the aisle, members could advance the national purpose, instead of using “equity” as an excuse for bringing more money home to their states and districts. The results — America’s aging infrastructure would be improved. Ditto for Americans’ economic future and environmental health. Washington lawmakers would be able to show through tangible transportation projects that they can rise above ideological positioning and narrow interests to achieve national benefits akin to the New Deal and the National Highway Act. If Bunning’s quixotic filibuster proves to have any lasting positive consequences, let’s hope that a saner, wiser policy investing in 21st century national infrastructure is counted among them.

Schank is director of transportation research at the Bipartisan Policy Center. Dallek is a visiting scholar at the center and acting director of the U.C. Davis Washington Program.