Bush administration outlines transportation plans

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A clean and historic break with the past is needed to encourage the future vitality of our country’s transportation network, said U.S. Transportation Secretary Mary Peters, who on Tuesday, July 29, helped unveil the Bush administration’s new plan to refocus, reform and renew the national approach to highway and transit systems in America.

“Without a doubt, our federal approach to transportation is broken,” Peters said at an Atlanta press conference. “And no amount of tweaking, adjusting or adding new layers on top will make things better.”

John Hill, head of the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, echoed Peters’ statements during a visit to the headquarters of Bendix Commercial Vehicle Systems in Elyria, Ohio. “It is time for a new, a different and a better approach,” Hill said.

Peters said the plan sets a course for reforming the nation’s transportation programs by outlining a renewed federal focus on maintaining and improving the Interstate highway system, instead of diverting funds for wasteful pet projects and for programs clearly not federal-priority areas like restoring lighthouses.

Addressing urban congestion and giving greater flexibility to state and local leaders to invest in their most needed transit and highway priorities is another key focus of the reform plan, Peters said. Local leaders will have greater freedom and significantly more resources to fund new subways, bus routes or highways as they choose, based on the needs of local commuters instead of the dictates of Washington.

As part of this focus on congestion, the plan would create a Metropolitan Innovation Fund that rewards cities willing to combine a mix of effective transit investments, dynamic pricing of highways and new traffic technologies, Peters said.

The reform plan also calls for greatly reducing more than 102 federal transportation programs that have proliferated over the last two decades, replacing them with eight comprehensive, intermodal programs that will help focus instead of dilute investments, and cut the dizzying red tape forced upon local planners, she said.

Peters said a hallmark of the plan is a refocused and redoubled emphasis on safety, using a data- and technology-driven approach that also gives states maximum flexibility to tackle their toughest safety challenges, including issues that put drivers, commercial drivers, passengers and pedestrians at risk, including crashes involving drunk drivers, motorcycles, work zones and rural roads.

And to improve the current 13-year average it takes to design and build new highway and transit projects in the United States, Peters said the federal review process would be streamlined to ask the same stringent environmental and planning questions, but to get answers more quickly.

Peters emphasized that central to any reform for transportation is finding new revenue sources to supplement the unpredictable and unsustainable gas tax in order to fund maintenance and pay for new needed projects. She said the gas tax is an antiquated mechanism, underscored by the current climate of high gas prices: Americans are driving less and taking advantage of transit options, but less driving also results in less revenue for transit operations.

Peters said more direct pricing options like tolling are needed, and states must be empowered to take advantage of the more than $400 billion available worldwide for infrastructure investments from the private sector.

“The idea is simple — use federal funds to encourage new sources of investments for transportation, instead of replacing them,” she said. “Our plan will make it easier to pay for and build roads and transit systems. It will deliver fewer traffic tie-ups, better transit services and a stronger economy. It will make our roads safer and give Americans new confidence that the money they invest in transportation will actually deliver results.”

Speeding construction times, reducing 100-plus federal transportation programs to a handful, and encouraging private investment, tolls and other pricing plans all were major planks in the National Surface Transportation Policy and Revenue Commission report issued in January. At the time, politicians both Republican and Democrat ridiculed the report’s tax recommendations and largely ignored the rest of it, while Peters, the commission’s chair, refused to sign the document.

Peters said the plan unveiled Tuesday lays out the Bush administration’s framework for overhauling the way U.S. transportation decisions and investments are made, and is intended to spur local, state and federal debate about how best to incorporate the new reforms into surface transportation legislation slated to be considered by Congress in 2009. She said she personally will brief members of Congress on the contents of the plan this week.

“I look forward to working with my colleagues on Capitol Hill over the next few months to really explore the innovative ideas contained in this proposal,” Peters said. “While I understand that this plan represents a significant departure from the status quo, I hope that Congress will shed partisan labels and come together to consider a piece of legislation that will keep our transportation system viable well into the next decade.”

A copy of the reform plan is available at www.fightgridlocknow.gov. A copy of Peters’ remarks can be found here.