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For once, the Senate tries to make highway spending less irrational

at 04:19 PM ET, 03/14/2012

One of the odd features of U.S. transportation policy is that, by and large, there isn’t an overarching national policy. States generally get money according to a set formula. Congress tends not to prioritize those projects that advance key economic or environmental goals.


About to make a little more sense. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
But on Wednesday, the Senate passed a two-year, $109 billion transportation bill that tries to change all that — at least in a few modest ways. The bill itself is critical because funding for roads, bridges and transit is set to run out on March 31. But there are a few notable reforms tucked away in the legislation itself. For one, the Senate bill actually articulates major national goals for U.S. transportation policy — things like managing congestion, improving road conditions, reducing environmental impacts, improving the reliability of freight, and increasing access to transit. These goals don’t really affect the way funding is handed out, but at least they finally exist.

“It’s the first time national goals have actually been articulated,” says Joshua Schank, a former Senate staffer who now heads up the Eno Center for Transportation. “It’s not done in a way that will impact how funding is actually distributed, but it will make states pay attention to those goals.” It’s a baby step, but it’s also an unprecedented baby step.

Historically, federal transportation money has been doled out to states by flat formulas — under the Equity Bonus program, for example, states get at least 92 percent of what they collect in federal gas taxes. In turn, states might evaluate individual projects for costs and benefits, but there’s little attention paid to how a given road or transit system will benefit the broader U.S. economy. “There’s a lot of attention on how much money gets spent on highways and transit, but very little on what returns we’re actually getting for our investments,” Schank says.

An analysis of the Senate bill sent out by Transportation for America details a few other notable reforms in the legislation. For one, the bill’s consolidated highway program would require that at least 60 percent of funds get spent on highway repair. The Department of Transportation would also establish “minimum-condition” standards for roads, with states facing penalties if their roads fell into decrepitude.

Transportation experts have long argued that we should be devoting more of our scarce resources to fixing what roads and bridges we already have, especially since the National Highway System, first built in the 1950s, is reaching the end of its natural lifespan. It’s usually more cost-effective to repair a road sooner rather than later. But the natural instinct for many politicians is to focus on shiny new roads — they get to enjoy a good ribbon-cutting, and they don’t have to hassle existing drivers with orange cones and repair crews.

In addition, the Senate bill would establish a new coordinated policy for freight and ports, as well as set up nationwide plans for passenger and freight rail. Public transit would still get its traditional 20 percent of the money from the Highway Trust Fund, which is paid for by gas taxes. But mass transit systems would also have more flexibility to use the money for operations, rather than simply for construction. That could help transit systems around the country reduce fare hikes and service cuts.

And now, all eyes turn to the House, where it’s still unclear whether Speaker John Boehner can persuade Republicans to coalesce around a transportation bill before funding runs out on March 31. The last GOP highway bill, the American Energy and Infrastructure Jobs Act, lacked many of the reforms in the Senate bill — there were no clear national goals laid out, and there were few requirements for states to repair their roads. On the other hand, notes Transportation for America, there were a number of amendments offered up by various House members that might have made the House bill resemble the Senate’s a little more.

Update: For more on the Senate bill, do read my colleague Ashley Halsey’s breakdown. It should be noted that there are plenty of criticisms of the legislation — among other things, it relies on financial gimmicks to dodge the fact that gas-tax revenues are no longer sufficient to fund our infrastructure needs.

 
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