Transportation Report: A blueprint for investment and reform

This week, the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure will release its Blueprint for Investment and Reform, a white paper outlining the organizational and policy reforms in the Surface Transportation Authorization Act of 2009. This legislation, now being drafted, will make significant changes in the way federal transportation programs are administered and how federal transportation dollars are invested

Decades of underinvestment

Regrettably, our transportation system, once the envy of the world, is losing its battle against time, growth, weather and wear. The system is suffering from decades of underinvestment, and the costs are staggering:

• Each year, 42,500 people are killed and 2.5 million people are seriously injured in more than 6 million motor vehicle crashes, which are now the leading cause of death of children and young adults ages 3 to 34.

• Congestion is crippling our major cities and even our small towns, at a cost of more than $78 billion a year, causing hardship for drivers and increasing costs and inefficiencies for America’s businesses.

• Accidents and traffic delays cost Americans more than $365 billion a year — $1 billion a day — or $1,200 for every man, woman and child in the nation.

• Nearly 61,000 miles, or 37 percent, of all lane miles on the National Highway System are in poor or fair condition, and more than 152,000 bridges — one of every four — are structurally deficient or functionally obsolete. The nation’s largest public transit agencies face an $80 billion maintenance backlog to bring their rail systems to a state of good repair and, within the next six years, almost every transit vehicle (55,000 vehicles) in rural America will need to be replaced.

• Since 1995, the percentage increase in miles traveled on the national highway system has been three times the percentage growth in the system’s capacity.

• Unlike citizens of other major industrialized nations, Americans have limited transportation choices. The United States has almost no high-speed passenger rail service, even though it is widely recognized that high-speed rail can significantly reduce congestion on our highways and in the air. We invest only a fraction of the amounts invested by European and Asian countries in high-speed rail.

The U.S. Department of Transportation is charged with addressing these enormous challenges. However, it has not lived up to its original purpose of integrating and implementing transportation policy. Most of DOT’s policies are established and administered by separate agencies, each of which focuses on a single mode of transportation.

Since completion of the Interstate highway system, our national transportation policy has lacked strategic focus. Although states and metropolitan regions are required to develop long-range transportation plans for highway, transit and rail investment, there has been no attempt to aggregate these plans and establish a National Transportation Strategic Plan that is intermodal in nature and national in scope.

In addition, federal transportation programs have no performance metrics. Today, there is no requirement for states, cities and public transit agencies to develop transportation plans with specific performance objectives, nor does DOT ensure that states are meeting specific objectives. DOT and state departments of transportation primarily decide whether projects are eligible for funding, but not whether the projects that are funded actually achieve the expected benefits. Throughout federal surface transportation programs there is limited transparency, accountability or oversight.

There are also unnecessarily long delays — more than 10 years for many highway and transit projects — for needed transportation improvements to be planned, approved and constructed.

Lastly, the financing mechanism for the programs is in crisis. The Highway Trust Fund does not have adequate revenues to meet existing commitments made by the federal government. If this is not corrected, there will be massive cuts in transportation investments beginning later this year, which will cause crippling job losses, a deepening of the economic recession, and a further deterioration of the nation’s surface transportation system.

1956 policies and 2009 needs

The template for our federal transportation programs was drawn in the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956 (P.L. 84-627). This landmark legislation established formula grant programs to distribute federal surface transportation funds to states.

However, the transportation programs and policies crafted more than a half-century ago are no longer well-suited to today’s challenges of improving the condition, performance and safety of our system. With completion of the Interstate system, national transportation policy lost its focus. Today, there are more than 108 individual programs, as well as dozens of set-asides and takedowns, that provide federal surface transportation funding. Overlapping and similar eligibility, transferability of funds, and the lack of transparency, accountability, and oversight make it impossible to determine whether programs are meeting national objectives. 

A bold new vision

Present and future demands on the nation’s intermodal surface transportation network require a bold, new vision, greater accountability, and a forward-thinking approach to the movement of people and goods.

The Surface Transportation Authorization Act of 2009 will transform the nation’s surface transportation framework and provide the necessary investment to carry out this vision. This increased investment will be accompanied by greater transparency, accountability, oversight and performance measures to ensure that taxpayer dollars are being invested effectively and in a manner that provides the maximum return on that investment.

The Blueprint document will be released at a Capitol Hill news conference at 11 a.m. Thursday. The event will be webcast live on the Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure website: The document itself will also be posted on the site at that time.

Oberstar is chairman of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure.