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Vol. 14, No. 6; November/December 2003

Reauthorizing the Federal Surface Transportation Program
What Lies Ahead?
While the TEA-21 extension ensures a continued flow of funds for the next five months, thus avoiding disruption to federal-aid transportation programs, thorny issues remain to be resolved before Congress will be able to pass a full six-year renewal of the surface transportation program. Chief among them is the challenge of identifying the resources to support the $375 billion funding level proposed by the leaders of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee-or finding an acceptable compromise.

Some interest groups continue to advocate a gas tax increase as a way to bridge the revenue gap, but the prospects for a gas hike are dim. Neither the Bush administration nor Congressional leaders seem inclined to support a tax increase. Nor have the governors come out to support a boost in the gas tax. "No politician in his right mind wants to raise taxes in an election year, no matter how well justified a tax increase may be," was a refrain we heard repeatedly in talking to state officials about the reauthorization impasse.

If not a gas tax increase then what? Bonding is one solution. It has been promoted on the Senate side and by Rep. Mark Kennedy (R-MN) whose FAST Lanes bill (HR 1767) has a potential of generating as much as $50 billion in new toll revenue bonds during a six-year period, according to estimates prepared by Robert Poole, Director of Transportation Studies at the Reason Policy Institute. Two other scenarios are possible, come next February when the current extension of the surface transportation authorization expires. First, Congress could pass another extension, postponing the decision on a six-year bill past the November 2004 elections in the hopes that a less politically charged environment and an improved economy would create a more favorable climate for a gas-tax increase in 2005. Second, Congressional transportation leaders could agree to lower their sights and settle on a more modest funding level, in the $280-300 million range, which the House Ways and Means Committee reportedly considers as more politically doable.

News From the HOT Lane Front
High-occupancy toll (HOT) lanes have made major gains over the summer, as federal, state and local officials endorsed either the concept or specific project proposals. These developments are part of a larger movement within the transportation community to embrace variable pricing as a serious policy tool, capable of financing new highway capacity, managing highway demand and providing "congestion insurance." While road pricing has long been a topic of discussion among academics and transportation researchers, and increasingly has been a subject of growing interest among federal and state transportation officials, it has only recently attracted the attention of congressional legislators and local elected officials. Rep. Mark Kennedy's (R-MN) FAST Act and the Administration's reauthorization proposal have given the concept of road pricing greater legitimacy. But, as the following report by Bob Poole, Director of Transportation Studies at the Reason Policy Institute, and your editor indicates, interest in HOT lanes and pricing is not confined to Washington. HOT lanes are catching fire across the country as their revenue-raising and congestion management potentials become recognized, and as evidence of their acceptance by highway users mounts.

The Backlash Against "Smart Growth"
The debate about "smart growth" shows no sign of subsiding. Increasingly, however, the Smart Growth forces - long basking in uncritical acclaim - find themselves on the defensive. In Loudoun County, Virginia - the second fastest growing county in the nation - opponents have filed more than 200 lawsuits to overturn tough growth control measures enacted in the late nineties to control sprawl. In New Jersey, builders and developers are mounting a series of legal challenges against the policies of Governor James McGreevey to promote "smart growth." In Colorado, local communities, eager to spur development and increase local tax base, are turning away from previously adopted growth restrictions. In California, the state has shelved legislation designed to shape California's future growth through financial rewards to cities that adopted the "smart growth" vision. Elsewhere, advocates for affordable housing and pro-growth forces are challenging "smart growth" initiatives in South and North Carolina, Michigan, Oregon, and Utah. These are just some of the overt signs of what many see as a growing backlash against anti-sprawl measures enacted in the 1990s - measures which were meant to slow down suburban growth but whose outcome has come to be seen as exclusionary and elitist. Increasingly, the "smart growth" movement is defending itself against accusations that its real motivation in urging denser infill development is to shelter wealthy suburbanites from further urbanization and shift the burden of growth to the city; and that its main consequence has been to raise suburban housing prices, maximize developer profits and deprive low income households and minorities of an opportunity to pursue the American dream of home ownership.

New "State of Traffic Congestion" Report Finds Traffic Jams Still Growing
Concern about traffic congestion continues to dominate newspaper headlines and congressional transportation leaders' attention. The latest Annual Mobility Report published by the Texas Transportation Institute (TTI) concludes that "congestion has spread to more cities, to more of the road system and trips in cities, to more time during the day and to more days of the week" than ever before. According to the report, two out of every three drivers experience congestion in their morning or evening commute, and principal roads in large metro areas remain congested for six to eight hours a day. As in the years past, the report looks at 75 cities and assesses the extent and severity of congestion in each city using a set of indicators, notably the Travel Time Index which measures the extra time needed for rush hour travel. The report also provides data on how traffic congestion has changed over the last 20 years (1982-2001) and attempts to measure the effects of several congestion remedies.

We have chosen six different indicators by which to rank the top 15 urban areas. The results are presented below.

The End of the Road for the Electric Vehicle

The electric car has been "the car of the future" for the last one hundred years. And, short of revolutionary improvements in battery technology, it is likely to remain a car of the future for many years to come."

We wrote these prophetic words back in November 2000 following a decision by the California Air Resources Board two months earlier not to back away from their requirement that by 2003 ten percent of all cars and light trucks sold in the state must be "zero-emission" vehicles. The so-called "ZEV mandate" would have meant an annual sale of about 22,000 battery-powered electric vehicles. Last year, the automakers won an injunction in the federal district court delaying the implementation of the ZEV requirement from 2003 to 2005 amid evidence that electric cars were too expensive and impractical to attract many buyers. But in August of this year, GM and DaimlerChrysler dropped their suit against the zero-emission vehicle program after state regulators eliminated the battery-powered electric car quota and provided much more flexibility for manufacturers to meet the ZEV requirement. As we said three years ago, the battery-powered electric car, of which only 216 were sold or leased in California last year, seems like it is destined to remain a "car of the future" for years to come.

 



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