Can toll roads keep America moving?

Holiday Travel

While New York City has been in the news lately for their plan to implement congestion pricing in Manhattan, what you don’t know about the experiment may surprise you. It wasn’t just the brainchild of a progressive city government committed to reducing vehicle traffic and congestion in a portion of the city with great transit access and where the majority of residents don’t drive. It was spurred along by an interesting combination of Democrats (and Republicans) removing earmarks from the federal budget and a conservative policymaker at the Department of Transportation looking for a way to test DOT plans to reduce congestion through roadway pricing.

Developments like these, coming from all directions in the political spectrum, point to a debate that’s only due to gain momentum in the run-up to next September’s new transportation bill that will establish spending and priorities for the next five years of federal transportation spending.

A story in today’s Washington Post chronicles the current administration’s attempts to fundamentally change the federal government’s role in transportation, highlighting two key conservative DOT policymakers who share Secretary Mary Peters belief that the feds should get out of transportation planning and funding, moving towards the privatization of projects.

For Gribbin, Duvall and Transportation Secretary Mary Peters, the goal is not just to combat congestion but to upend the traditional way transportation projects are funded in this country. They believe that tolls paid by motorists, not tax dollars, should be used to construct and maintain roads. They and other political appointees have spent the latter part of President Bush’s two terms laboring behind the scenes to shrink the federal role in road-building and public transportation. They have also sought to turn highways into commodities that can be sold or leased to private firms and used by motorists for a price. In Duvall and Gribbin’s view, unleashing the private sector and introducing market forces could lead to innovation and more choices for the public, much as the breakup of AT&T transformed telecommunications.

But their ideas and actions have alarmed transit advocates, the trucking industry, states struggling to build rail projects and members of Congress from both parties.

The system of funding transportation is clearly broken, but the segment of it that gets the most attention — the earmarks — are really just a small portion of the problem. As others have covered elsewhere (notably Brookings’ Rob Puentes here), earmarks only represent a small fraction of total transportation spending, with the rest going to states, basically with no strings attached. As a result, the states are free to spend that money with no performance-based accountability, stated goals or purpose.

In a perverse funding mechanism, states that have higher rates of vehicle miles traveled (VMT), get more money. So states that build more highway lanes that fill up with more cars, get more money from the federal government. States that utilize funding for transit, alternative modes, and better planning to reduce the amount people have to drive, get less funding.

As this story highlights in striking fashion, consensus is starting to emerge for a complete overhaul of the current method of transportation funding and spending; a rudderless plan that results in earmarks galore, neglected maintenance, and a focus on simply building more lanes and throughput.

A final decision on the Dulles extension is on hold. But Duvall and his colleagues have ignited a national argument — the first real debate about how to fund transportation in 50 years. “This is as big as it gets in terms of policy changes in America,” Duvall said. “It’s clear that we’ve ruffled feathers — right, left and center — in talking about new approaches. That said, I think the public is really dying for new ways to do things. . . . The genie is somewhat out of the bottle.”

Everyone, especially folks over a certain age, can testify to the transformation of our country that resulted from Eisenhower’s national vision for the Interstate System. We poured a huge amount of our national wealth into a decades-long project, along the way creating jobs, wealth, connectedness, spreading an economic boom to new cities and places across the country.

But the massive investment that resulted in so many benefits was not without unseen costs. As more people connect the dots between high gas prices and how much they have to drive, how dependent we are on oil from foreign sources, and the impact of our emissions on the climate, the stars are aligning to have a productive national conversation about transportation for the next year and a half.

So what exactly, do we want to pour our collective national wealth into for the next 50 years:

More concrete, asphalt, and congestion — or something different?

photo by Steve Davis / The Chattanooga Times Free Press