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Hope Springs Eternal

By Clifford F. Lynch

DC Velocity, July 2009

For almost two years, I’ve been writing about the need for a national transportation policy, and finally, Congress has come up with the same idea. I wish I could take some of the credit, but of course I cannot. Still, I’m gratified to see that Washington has finally acknowledged the need for a comprehensive national strategic plan.

The Senate got the wheels turning in May when Sens. John Rockefeller (D-W.V.) and Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) introduced the Federal Surface Transportation Policy and Planning Act of 2009. In presenting the bill, Sen. Lautenberg said, "A national surface transportation policy for our country is long overdue." That seriously understates the case, given that our national policy hasn’t been modified in 69 years. In any event, the tide seems to be turning, and hopefully, the end result will be a better system for shippers, carriers, and the U.S. population in general.

As you might expect, there are some new twists in the bill. The last policy act, the Transportation Act of 1940, charged the federal government with cooperating with the "several states and duly authorized officials thereof" in maintaining a national transportation system. The proposed bill provides that "the system shall be built, maintained, managed, and operated as a partnership between the federal, state and local governments and the private sector…" (emphasis added). While this sounds innocuous enough, there are many who believe that the private sector should not be involved in infrastructure development. This policy, if not encouraging private investment, certainly appears to allow it.

The 2009 version also provides that the national surface transportation policy will advance, among other things, "…the protection of the environment." There should be no controversy here. I think we can all agree that future development must consider the environment – within reason, of course.

In all, the proposed bill identifies 10 specific goals, but it says nothing about strategies for achieving them. The measure simply mandates that within two years of the legislation’s passage, the secretary of transportation must develop a "National Surface Transportation Performance Plan" to achieve the goals and objectives set forth in the bill.

To me, this is where the rubber meets the road – no pun intended. One of the goals is to "reduce national per-capita motor vehicle miles traveled on an annual basis." A related goal is to increase use of public transportation, rail service, and non-motorized transportation. You probably can’t have one without the other, but even so, it will be very difficult to change driving habits (unless the cost of fuel skyrockets again).

The bill also sets ambitious targets for safety and air quality, with goals of reducing motor vehicle fatalities by 50 percent and carbon dioxide emissions by 40 percent by 2030. Both are admirable and hopefully can be achieved, but how? These will be major challenges for the Department of Transportation.

Other goals include reducing surface transportation delays as well as delays and congestion at border points; increasing the percentage of "system-critical surface transportation assets" in good repair by 20 percent by 2030; and reducing – or at least maintaining – the cost of transportation as a percentage of gross domestic product.

Perhaps the most controversial goal, at least in some circles, will be to "increase the proportion of national freight transportation provided by non-highway or multimodal services by 10 percent by 2020." The American Trucking Associations already has weighed in on this one; no doubt others will follow.

We’re still a long way from passage of final legislation, and there will doubtless be many twists and turns along the way. I believe we all should be grateful, however, that someone is taking the first step toward establishing a comprehensive national transportation policy.

 

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