Vol. 15, No. 5; July/August 2004
As the House-Senate conferees attempt the arduous task of reconciling two very different versions of the transportation authorization bill, stakeholder groups are engaged in one final effort to influence the shape of the final legislation. The overall funding level and the donor-donee issue (whose resolution depends on the level of funding) appear to be the dominant issues. A group of 211 corporate executives has written a letter urging the conferees to approve a six-year authorization "at a minimum of $318 billion," the level recommended in the Senate bill (S.1072) but opposed by the White House. Highway interest groups also have been lobbying hard for the $318 billion funding level. But there have been some dissonant voices. Ronald D. Utt, Senior Research Fellow at the Heritage Foundation and an influential transportation policy analyst, in an open letter to the House and Senate conferees, has urged them to accede to the President's $256 billion proposal. The federal program should be capped at whatever level of spending the current gas tax delivers, he said. The Wall Street Journal has echoed these sentiments in several hard-hitting editorials, attacking the House bill's more than 3,000 earmarks as having little to do with transportation.
Second in importance as a lobbying target have been the bills' provisions concerning highway tolling. A number of interest groups, from environmentalists to highway builders, came out in favor of the Senate version which gives States wide discretion to toll Interstate highways and authorizes experimentation with various pricing approaches. But the more restrictive House version also has its supporters, including a coalition of conservative and anti-tax groups that is urging the conferees to adopt the House language "to ensure that tolls are used to create new capacity, not as an added surcharge on existing roads." Adding their voice in opposition to tolling existing Interstates have been several influential highway interest groups.
Six years ago, when the House and Senate conferees were negotiating the final version of TEA-21, the subject of tolling and transportation pricing hardly ever came up. That this time around, tolls have become an object of lobbying by so many different interests, speaks volumes about the sea change that has occurred in thinking about transportation financing. While there are still some powerful voices opposing tolls on existing Interstates, there is a growing consensus within the transportation community, including public officials, that tolling represents a valuable– some would say, indispensable– supplementary source of future highway revenue. The reason for this attitudinal change has been stated succinctly by FHWA Administrator, Mary Peters: "More and more areas are realizing that there are limits to what can be accomplished with traditional highway financing options. State and local governments are realizing that pricing is an option that must be considered."
What a difference six years can make!
How can we ensure that the highway system is adequately funded in the long run? If revenue from motor fuel taxes proves to be insufficient to meet future needs, what new funding sources and revenue collection methods could be envisioned to supplement the gas tax, and how might the resulting changes affect the federal role in transportation? Two respected senior federal transportation officials have kindly agreed to share their views on this vital issue with Innovation Briefs. They are U.S. DOT's Assistant Secretary for Transportation Policy, Emil Frankel and Federal Highway Administrator, Mary Peters. Both Mr. Frankel and Ms. Peters have played prominent roles in developing the Administration's SAFETEA reauthorization proposal and both are closely involved in charting the future of federal transportation policy. Below is a slightly modified version of the comments they originally contributed to an FHWA-sponsored e-mail dialogue on the future of the federal role in transportation financing. The dialogue, which involved a group of transportation professionals, was intended to serve as a foundation for a series of articles in the FHWA publication Public Roads.
Road space is becoming a scarce commodity in America's metropolitan areas and there are few prospects of significantly increasing highway capacity except at an exorbitant cost. Can we afford to give away a portion of this valuable resource in the form of lanes exclusively reserved for carpools? And should we extend this give-away to low-emission vehicles, as called for in the Administration's and House surface transportation reauthorization bills and in proposed California legislation [AB 2628]? Most certainly not, says Robert Poole, director of transportation studies at the Reason Public Policy Institute in a recent commentary in PWFinancing. "America faces twin crises in urban transportation: a congestion crisis and a funding crisis. Express Toll Lanes that give every driver a congestion-relief alternative on major expressways could address both crises," asserts Poole. But this solution, he says, risks being compromised if we dedicate highway lanes to special classes of drivers or vehicles.
We agree. The original rationale for giving priority to carpoolers was to conserve fuel. But today, with the number of carpoolers dwindling and with the remaining carpools largely among family members (who would share a ride with or without an HOV incentive), reserving this valuable space for such a relatively small band of commuters simply makes no sense. Evidence from California's express toll lanes shows that drivers are willing to pay 50-60 cents/mile for the privilege of traveling in congestion-free lanes. Express Toll Lanes thus offer a potential to generate millions of dollars in toll revenue – money that could be used to supplement the gas tax and improve our highways and transit service.
Yes, encouraging ridesharing and low-emission vehicles are worthy public policy goals. But should they take precedence over congestion relief and generation of badly needed highway funds? We join Bob Poole in saying it is time for a serious debate on this issue.
When Anthony Downs comes out with a new book it's always a major publishing event, and so it was with the publication of his latest work, "Still Stuck in Traffic," unveiled at a June 14 Brookings Institution symposium before a crowd of Washington transportation and planning luminaries. The book is an expanded and updated version of Downs' earlier work, "Stuck in Traffic." While the new book reaffirms the author's long-held thesis that peak hour congestion is an inevitable condition of modern urban life and will not go away no matter what tactics might be employed against it, the new edition contains a wealth of fresh material, drawing on the many new ideas, data, research and experience generated since the publication of the original edition in 1992. Indeed, "Still Stuck in Traffic" may become the single most valuable source book of data, information and analysis for any one wishing to better understand the phenomenon of traffic congestion, its causes and remedies.
It is difficult to argue with Downs' central principle of "triple convergence" that "for every commuter removed from traffic by any of the multitude of congestion relief tactics, another driver who is now using other routes or other modes, or going at other times, will move onto whatever space is vacated by the first ones." This would support and explain Downs' bottom-line—and to some, an excessively pessimistic and defeatist conclusion—that continued traffic congestion is inevitable (and may even get worse!). However, Downs does not think that traffic congestion is necessarily something to be demonized. First, he says, traffic congestion is often a sign of prosperity and economic success rather than an unmitigated disaster. In a sense, intensified traffic congestion is one of the prices society pays for economic success. Secondly, surveys Downs cites show that congestion is not a pressing concern among all Americans. Significant fractions of the nation's population do not encounter heavy traffic and are only rarely delayed by it. Almost no one see it as a national problem comparable in importance to the economy, crime or education.
That is not to say that residents of many large metropolitan regions – such as Denver, Atlanta, Seattle, Washington DC, or San Francisco – do not regard traffic congestion as a serious problem. In those regions (and there are many others in a similar situation), aggressive congestion-relief programs aimed at eliminating specific traffic bottlenecks and increasing capacity of congested corridors are not just desirable but essential. However, we agree with Tony Downs' conclusion that such efforts, while bringing short term relief, will not permanently eradicate peak hour traffic congestion. And we concur with his tongue-in-cheek advice that those of us who live in large urban areas might as well get used to congestion and regard the time spent stuck in traffic as a chance to relax, listen to music or talk radio and enjoy a few rare moments of quiet reflection and undisturbed privacy.
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