Reverse DRIVE: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly in a Proposed Highway Bill


The Senate moved forward with the highway part (summary here) of a transportation bill this morning, and it has a few big features. It has a new competitive program for big bridge and highway projects. It has a big focus on freight infrastructure planning and construction. And it would expand the program by about $100 billion over 6 years. These features expand a program that is not, as the Bipartisan Policy Center has noted, "performance-driven." As written, the program would lurch forward, mostly same as it ever was.

To be fair, there are some modest improvements to planning and project design. This is the good news. A relatively modest but important and cost-effective program that delivers projects for bicyclists and pedestrians (e.g., bike lanes and sidewalks), the Transportation Alternatives Program, is expanded slightly under this bill. In addition, more of the funding will now go directly to metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs) and nonprofits can now compete for TAP funding too. This opens the door to more innovation and effective uses of funding since many state departments of transportation (DOTs), like U.S. DOT, are still dominated by their highway agencies and so not prone to devote energy and staff time to creative nonmotorized project development. For more info about these provisions click here or here.

The bill also includes some new, useful competitive grant programs. The first, for "Achievement in Transportation for Performance and Innovation," provides $150 million for local, state or tribal activities that qualify as innovative or cost-saving techniques for improving project delivery or improve the transparency of broader transportation strategies. The second, for "System Operations and ITS Deployment," provides $180 million in funding for upgrades to transportation systems so they are smarter and more data-driven (e.g., real-time signage and other communications on roads and transit lines or traffic management center technology upgrades). Last, it includes a $12 million "Regional Infrastructure Accelerator Demonstration Program" which supports predevelopment activities that help take innovative projects to completion, for example by providing technical assistance for financing, bundling sets of packages together and deploying predevelopment capital in order to build a pipeline of innovative, investment-worthy projects (this is reminiscent of a cool multi-state initiative I wrote about here).

The bill also requires that resilience and intercity bus considerations be integrated into metropolitan planning, helping to prep transportation infrastructure for climate change and bringing a greener mode of transportation to the planning table. The bill also slightly expands the pilot program for tolling of interstates in order to reconstruct or rehabilitate them, which can help manage that capacity more effectively. And - great catch by Tanya Snyder of on these changes - tucked into the end of the bill are design changes for streets requiring that they consider the natural environment, history and access to other modes of transportation, and allowing states to use a bicycle and pedestrian friendly transportation standard developed by the National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO) vs. the tired old-school state DOT "green book."

And while they are undoubtedly too highway-focussed, this bill also requires development of national and state freight strategies for the first time. These sections were presumably lifted from the Administration's GROW AMERICA Act, although that bill improves the balance between transportation modes by lifting up transit, rail and nonmotorized transportation.

Now the bad news. First, despite the fact that the last transportation bill had about 30 pages of provisions that undermine environmental reviews which have yet to be fully implemented by U.S. DOT, this bill has more such provisions! Three of them stand out as most problematic. First, there are sections that could reduce the caliber of reviews by allowing work during MPO and state planning apply when developing projects. For those not versed in this, transportation basically works in three stages - first, a long-range plan is assembled; second, a short-term program is developed; and last, individual projects are developed and delivered. These provisions wouldn't be a problem if high-performance planning were the norm among MPOs and state DOTs, but that's not realistic. MAP-21 focussed on performance management in planning for good reason, and there's still a lot of work ahead to improve the planning process and products.

There's also a provision which undermines a longstanding protection in national law - Section 4(f) of the 1966 Transportation Act. This substantive protection stands between bridge and highway builders and historic resources. Its implementation has become pretty flexible over the last 40 years, even when a project is litigated. As a University of Kentucky study of cases found more than a decade ago "4(f) is not an insuperable hurdle, which invariably will impose great additional costs or stop a project cold. The overall trend is reassuring to state highway agencies that want a more flexible approach to 4(f) cases..." I'll bet that flexibility has only increased, and that it's doubtless complemented by agency flexibility, especially since MAP-21 allowed an exception for projects that have a "de minimis" or negligible effect on historic resources. In other words, compliance with 4(f) is not a national problem but a commonsense safeguard against destruction of historic resources.

And then there's AMP - Assistance for Major Projects. This is a competitive grant program for giant bridge or highway projects. Remember TIGER? That oversubscribed competitive program that is available for big and small projects, whether they're highways, rail projects or bike trails, has funded billions of dollars' worth of cool projects since its creation in 2009. And it has had ripple effects beyond that, since even MPOs and states who miss out on grants improve designs in order to compete. It encourages MPOs and states to save taxpayer money by thinking beyond big roads to more innovative ways of solving transportation programs. AMP is like an aging house cat compared to TIGER's roar of innovation in transportation.

Finally, there's no getting around the ugly in this bill. Contrast it with the Administration's proposal. GROW AMERICA would add intercity rail to the highway trust fund, rename it the "transportation trust fund," giving this important mode dedicated support. It absolutely and proportionately boosts funding for public transportation such as commuter rail and bus rapid transit, crucial options for a nation which is becoming more and more urban (and suburban). It increases funding for mode-neutral competitive programs. And it includes badly needed provisions for improving MPO effectiveness and capacity.

While DRIVE includes laudable policy provisions, with this bill it's important to follow the enormous sums of money inside. And that's where the bill kicks it into reverse, to a highway-heavy past.

Bottom line? I give one cheer for moving this bill. That's what it deserves.