Delivering Mobility Choices

The Transportation Research Board’s annual meeting is underway here in D.C., with thousands of transportation experts gathering to hear presentations and participate in sessions exploring technical and policy issues. One blogger overheard talk of a drafting process going on within the new Administration from a top DOT official. I hope this is a real sign of progress, given that the unacceptable status quo law has been in place far too long.

How long, you ask? One could argue that it’s been in place since 1956, the year the Interstate System of highways was launched by Congress and the Eisenhower Administration. That law was dubbed the “National Interstate and Defense Highways Act,” and helped launch an era of economic growth and prosperity in the U.S. But the more precise answer is that it’s been in place since 2005, when the Safe, Affordable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act – A Legacy for Users (SAFETEA-LU), was enacted. This was the latest in a series of multi-year transportation authorizations that built on the architecture of the 1956 law.

The end result is a teetering mass of more than 100 programs lacking a clear overarching set of objectives. But that may not be the worst of it. The latest law was signed into law just days after a huge energy bill. And then two years later, a new energy bill was passed. And now, less than three years later, we are debating another energy bill. This legislative activity since the turn of the millennium is partly aimed at tackling what President Bush called our “addiction to oil” in his 2006 State of the Union, and rightly so.

What drives that addiction? Transportation is responsible for the lion’s share of our oil consumption and is almost entirely dependent on oil-derived liquid fuels. So it’s logical to assume that policymakers would be intent on aligning our transportation policy with our national policy goal of energy independence (or as some prefer to call it, energy security).

Think again. Saving oil is not a goal of our national transportation policy, putting it potentially at odds with energy policy. That’s unacceptable, since both environmental quality and our nation’s security is at risk (for more details, click here, here and/or here for a newer, thought-provoking analysis co-authored by Amy Jaffe of Rice University).

That’s why I’ve joined a rather unusual group to push anew for choices for consumers. I’ve collaborated with some of these advocates and experts before, pushing for more vehicle choices at dealerships and more fuel prices at the pump. Now, with the transportation law up for renewal, is the time to boost investments in more mobility choices.

The principles that underpin our platform are: 1) Alignment of price signals to consumers closer to a full and transparent reflection of costs; 2) End federal bias for any particular transportation mode by basing investments on performance criteria and allocating costs based on use; 3) Push responsibility down to the metropolitan level; and 4) Aggressively deploy technology to improve operations in each transportation mode.

From these principles, we derive a ten-point plan for federal transportation policy:

1)      Ensure the price of fuel better reflects oil’s security impact;

2)      Deploy “HOT” lanes and congestion pricing;

3)      Allocate transit dollars to optimize oil savings;

4)      Increase insurance choice;

5)      Provide transit vouchers for low-income households;

6)      Make telecommuting more frequent and widespread;

7)      Return gas tax revenue to areas with the most traffic and oil savings potential;

8)      Liberalize local land-development rules;

9)      Deploy smart traffic management; and

10)   Deploy electric rail if justified by cost efficiency and oil displacement potential.

Next we plan to gauge the oil-saving potential of our plan. Stay tuned, and please fan the effort on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.