U.S. must refocus to meet demands of new priorities

From Houston to Philadelphia, from Portland to Phoenix, the message was clear: Our transportation needs are not the same as they were a generation ago, and our programs need to be refocused to serve today’s national priorities.

The U.S. needs a transformative transportation policy that improves public health and safety, fosters livable communities, maintains our transportation infrastructure in a state of good repair, and promotes long-term economic competiveness — all while achieving environmental sustainability. Our nation’s transportation programs must also be transparent and accountable to the American public, performance-based, and designed to maximize the value of public investment. 

During the 20th century, the U.S. built highway and aviation networks that fueled unprecedented economic prosperity and individual mobility, and connected America’s cities, towns and regions. Today, however, the U.S. transportation system is struggling to adapt to the changing economic, social and environmental challenges of a new era. The Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act of 1991 (ISTEA) was intended to create truly multimodal transportation systems, but that promise has not been fully realized. At present, our policies and investment decisions for highways, public transit, railroads, seaports, and airports are often poorly integrated with each other, and with other government initiatives.  

Transportation is about more than simply moving people and goods from point A to point B. Increasingly, transportation is being recognized as an essential component of comprehensive strategies to meet broader national priorities like health and safety, livable communities, and economic competitiveness.

For example, a combination of strategies involving all parts of the highway safety community will be required if we are to reduce the unacceptable fatality rate on our nation’s highways. Drivers must be held accountable for driving responsibly, which means using their seatbelts, not driving while impaired, and not driving while distracted by texting or other activities that take their full attention away from the road. State legislatures, law enforcement agencies and the court system must also step up and recognize negligent and unlawful driving for what it is: a serious public health and safety risk. And state and local agencies must utilize the technologies already available to deter some of the riskiest driving behaviors — speeding, running red lights and driving while intoxicated.

Developing sustainable local transportation systems is another challenge requiring a new approach from the federal government.  Enacting new fuel economy standards and moving toward cleaner fuels will take us only so far. Other short- and long-term strategies like improving the availability and quality of transportation choices and better integrating transportation and land use development will also have to be part of the solution. Integrated solutions require breaking out of modal silos and changing the way we’ve traditionally made federal policy. Several months ago, I joined with EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson and HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan to create a Partnership for Sustainable Communities as a first step toward increased interagency collaboration and policymaking.

Change is always challenging, but I am optimistic that we can provide the kind of safe, efficient, sustainable transportation systems we need to prosper individually and as a nation. I look forward to working with Congress to chart a new course for transportation, one that will enhance our quality of life, grow our economy, and protect our environment.

LaHood is the secretary of transportation.