Photo courtesy of Wikipedia Commons, taken by Jerry Huddleston
For the first time, the Obama Administration has set detailed terms for legislating by developing a blueprint for a new four-year transportation policy. Last week, Transportation Secretary Foxx rolled out the GROW AMERICA Act, which within its 350 pages makes several big changes and heralds an overdue evolution in national transportation policy. Here are the top eight provisions in this remarkable bill:
Transportation System Resilience Assessment: In a nod of recognition to the impacts of climate change, the bill requires Metropolitan Planning Organizations (MPOs) to conduct an assessment of potential risks to highway and transit systems. MPOs will be required to explain potential strategies for the adaption and resilience of transportation assets in the long range transportation plan.
Consolidated and High Performing Metropolitan Planning Organizations: This is a particularly exciting section for those interested in rational, efficient regional planning. Metropolitan Planning Organizations (MPOs) are federally designated entities that coordinate investments across metropolitan regions. They have varying levels of authority as determined by state and local policymakers. They also, strangely, aren’t necessarily congruent with the boundaries for metropolitan statistical areas (MSAs). This yields situations in which a metropolitan region might be governed by multiple MPOs, which leads to inefficiencies such as in Florida where 26 MPOs cover just 20 MSAs. This bill explicitly allows and encourages MPOs within the same MSA to consolidate (and collaborate), and allows consolidated MPOs to create one transportation improvement program, one Long Range Plan and one set of performance targets for the region. This section also introduces funding for the newly designated “high performing MPOs” in larger urban areas – encouraging greater collaboration within the region and access to additional funds for transportation projects that are more regional in scope, equitable and coordinated.
Strengthening the Statewide Planning Process: The Administration closes an accountability gap for state highway agencies in this section, making requirements for grantees consistent (MPOs and state agencies). MPOs have long been subject to a certification process based on their planning, with some loss of some funding if they fail to perform well. This bill applies this policy to state agencies too.
Connection to Opportunities Performance Measure and Pilot Program: A powerful fact often overlooked in the transportation world: this infrastructure isn’t an end in itself, it’s a means for Americans to achieve their desired ends and thereby to increase economic prosperity or us all. To address this, the Administration adds a new “multimodal connectivity” performance measure to gauge access to opportunigy (economic and otherwise) and establishes pilot (programs for communities to “develop and deploy one or more pilot measures and targets to improve multimodal connectivity and increase connections for disadvantaged Americans and neighborhoods with limited transportation options.” Other laudable program elements include a peer learning network and a final report useful for policymakers.
Stormwater Planning and Project Funding: This bill requires that metropolitan and state plans mitigate stormwater impacts of highways and makes STP funds available to fund “green infrastructure” projects. Polluted stormwater runoff is a huge threat to lakes, rivers and streams and there’s a large toolkit of viable design techniques to tackling it, so this is a welcome change to current law. Having said that, the Administration didn’t propose a specific setaside of STP monies for these investments. Such a program was passed by the Senate when the 2005 transportation law was debated, and it deserves renewed consideration.
21st Century Infrastructure Investments: The oversubscribed and wildly popular TIGER (Transportation Investments Generating Economic Recovery) program which roared to life in the 2009 Recovery Act is given a permanent seat in the new multimodal account. TIGER funded projects such as the Sugar House Streetcar in Salt Lake City, Utah and the East Bay Pedestrian and Bicycle Network in California. The bill boosts TIGER to $5 billion within four years. The Administration also builds on TIGER’s success by creating a new “Fixing and Accelerating Surface Transportation” (FAST) grant program to help accelerate and scale up the adoption of best practices including innovative non-federal funding concepts, development of novel analytical tools and making more efficient use of existing infrastructure. In addition, the section establishes a new “Metropolitan Mobility Program” with one billion dollars spread over four fiscal years for projects in high performing MPOs providing another sweetener for MPOs to virtuously compete for that status.
Tolling: The bill opens up a previous pilot program to fund the reconstruction of aging Interstate Highways nationwide. Public transportation and projects reducing environmental damage in rebuilt corridors are now eligible to use those funds, delivering important mobility and environmental benefits.
Transit and Rail Titles: I’m rounding up this list with the most revolutionary improvements to the transportation law. The bill replaces the highway trust fund with a “transportation trust fund” and creates a couple of new accounts, including for the first time a rail account! Transit receives nearly $60 billion worth of investment in this bill, which gives it a proportionately greater share of the added funding than in previous bills. With 82 percent (and rising; it was 64% in 1950) of Americans living in urban areas, this significant increase in funding for transportation projects is clearly warranted. This includes a $2.175 billion program targeted at transit investments in regions experiencing rapid growth, where such investments can pay big dividends by acting as magnets for new development next to transit stops and helping to reduce the sprawling, environmentally damaging form of new growth increments.
It also includes $19.550 billion for current rail services as well as improvements, along with requirements for robust national, regional and state rail planning. This bill is a big downpayment – not just with money, but with crucial strategic planning – towards a serious national rail system. It also includes some small-but-important items including the first-ever “Shared-Use Study” to examine and evaluate the often strained relationship between passenger and freight rail companies that share the system.
The whole bill adds up to an excellent national transportation strategy for 2014 and beyond. It lifts up planning and investments that are keys to making our metropolitan regions economically competitive and environmentally responsible.. And it includes a host of other substantial and overdue changes that would spur more investment in climate preparedness and stormwater cleanup, funding of reconstruction of aging Interstate Highways, and more connectivity within and virtuous competition between metropolitan areas and states. Such policy changes will help drive down our dependence on oil and reduce suburban sprawl. This bill is a leveraged use of federal taxpayer dollars, and deserves speedy consideration by Congress.