Vol. 16, No. 6; Nov/Dec 2005
The trend toward ever greater congressional earmarking has the transportation community worried. As recently as 1982, the transportation bill contained only 10 earmarked projects. This number grew to 152 in the 1987 legislation and to 538 in the 1991 legislation (ISTEA). By contrast, the current law (TEA-LU) contains a staggering 6,371 earmarks, worth over $12 billion. The situation was deemed troubling enough to cause the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO) to pass a policy resolution (PR-2-05, 9/19/05) to bring the matter of excessive earmarking and its consequences to the attention of the congressional Surface Transportation Policy Commission and the members’ congressional delegations. Many observers fear that unless the perception of the program as a grab bag of pork barrel projects changes, and the federal surface transportation program is given a new focus and a new mission — responsive to America’s changing needs in a global economy—public support for the program will wane and any hope of increasing the federal gas tax (or adopting a substitute revenue measure) will vanish.
At a recent meeting of a group of Washington-based transportation professionals, the need to give the program a new direction and a fresh sense of purpose was the main topic of conversation. But participants had difficulty in envisioning what kind of a process could accomplish this objective.
Is a tolled highway system truly the answer for our future? Can it pass the political hurdles?” These are the questions syndicated columnist Neal Peirce posed in a recent column after noting local reluctance to raise gas taxes (as evidenced most recently by a legislative moratorium on raising the state gasoline tax in Georgia); an expected drop in tax receipts flowing into the Trust Fund as people cut back on driving in the face of rising fuel prices; and mounting interest in revenue producing HOT lanes and toll roads. According to Peirce, questions about the future prospects for tolling are ones that “very few of us – politico or plan citizens– seem ready to answer.” But evidence from across the country seems to belie Peirce’s skepticism. Indeed, recent months have seen strong indications that tolling is becoming accepted by both politicians and the transportation community as a necessary and proper supplement to traditional highway revenue sources
In 1997 then-Governor Paris N. Glendening unveiled a new statewide growth policy. His initiative, which he called “smart growth,” quickly gained national attention and was praised as “the most promising new tool for managing growth in a generation.” The intent behind the Smart Growth Areas Act, as the legislative initiative was named, was simple: state funds should not be used to fuel development in areas that do not already have adequate public infrastructure. Under the law, counties were to submit plans to the state showing where they want growth to occur. The designated “priority funding areas” would be eligible for state infrastructure financial assistance. Projects that fell outside the boundaries of these areas would not be eligible for support.
The policy was hailed as a milestone in enlightened planning and a national model of an antidote to sprawl. But what looked good in concept proved to be a lot tougher in practice.
On January 10, 1996 then Secretary of Transportation Federico Peña announced a bold new ITS initiative. Christened “Operation TimeSaver,” the new program was meant to speed up deployment of Intelligent Transportation Infrastructure across the United States. The goal was to outfit 75 of the largest metropolitan areas with a complete Intelligent Transportation Infrastructure in ten years— i.e. by the end of year 2005. Said the Secretary in announcing the initiative: ”We think state and local governments will willingly choose to invest in ITS solutions as the benefits become more widely known and accepted.” And what better way to articulate those benefits than in terms of time savings. Predicted Secretary Peña: “Operation TimeSaver will reduce the travel time of Americans by at least 15 percent...”
How closely have the nation’s cities come to fulfilling Secretary Pena’s goals? As the tenth anniversary of the launching of Operation TimeSaver approaches, the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) conducted a study of the progress made in implementing this initiative and its effectiveness in managing congestion. (Intelligent Transportation Systems’ Promise for Managing Congestion Falls Short and DOT Could Better Facilitate Their Strategic Use, GAO-05-943, September 2005). GAO’s conclusions should be an object lesson in how not to set unrealistic goals or make unrealistic claims for this still young technology.
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