What Flavor of TEA Do You Want?

Robert Goodspeed's picture

The federal law setting nation transportation funding and policy, SAFETEA-LU, is set to expire on September 30, 2009. The huge bill has regulated everything from the New Starts transit program to thousands of pork-barrel transportation projects around the country. With unprecedented concern over global warming, a new president in November, and popular frustration with congestion on both transit and highways, there may be the opportunity for a major revision in federal policy. In this post I review some of the debate so far, and outline the proposals recently released by an independent commission.

With discussion starting in Washington I thought it was a good time to kick off conversation here on Planetizen. Previously on the site, last fall Interchange contributor Josh Stephens critiqued SAFETEA-LU's name as "artless" and "obfuscating." He probably won't be much happier with the name I've heard tossed around for the new bill, GREEN TEA (no word on what it would stand for, precisely), or the name adopted by a group of transportation activists for their campaign "T4America." I hope he'll forgive the title of this post. Way back in 2004 a group of Bush's transportation advisors wrote an op-ed for this site describing their views. The arguments will come as no surprise to Planetizen readers: they argue for extensive new tolls, "weeding" out transit projects, and encouraging Bus Rapid Transit.

The area of transportation policy that has sparked the most discussion is congestion pricing. A Washington Post article describing the key movers behind the DOT's interest in congestion tolls sparked a variety of blog responses, and the issue has been hotly debated in the cities where it has been proposed.

Looking forward, the logical place to start the conversation is with the findings of a national commission charged under SAFETEA-LU to offer recommendations for the next transportation bill. I discussed some of the findings of the National Surface Transportation Policy and Revenue Study Commission in a recent post to my personal blog. Essentially, the group suggested a substantial increase in the Federal gas tax, anywhere from $.59 to $1.03 per gallon. The tax hasn't moved from 18.4 cents per gallon since 1993, and its dwindling revenue means the highway trust fund will run out of money without new sources of revenue. On the policy side, the commission recommends accelerating approval of new projects by streamlining the environmental review process, re-organizing all federal transportation programs into ten topical programs, and creating a new independent public commission to oversee a national transportation plan.

Collectively these recommendations could mean substantial changes for urban planners. The new funds and accelerated approvals could mean substantial investment in our urban areas. The commission suggests much higher federal matching ratios for mass transit projects than they currently experience, meaning transit and highways would be funded in similar ways. Most provocatively, I like their suggestion of an independent commission to help de-politicize the funding process.

How should SAFETEA-LU be improved? Is there an opportunity for a paradigm shift, or is the new bill destined to be another inefficient boondoggle packed with bridges to nowhere, Byzantine rules for transit, and lavish funding for highways?

Robert Goodspeed is a PhD student at the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning.



Josh Stephens's picture

With Milk, Honey, and Scones

Thanks for the shout-out, though I'll admit that ANY name is better than SAFETEA-LU! It it's really green and doesn't involve bridges to nowhere or a valentine to a legislator's wife then it's all right by me.

Fight the power.

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