Transportation Policies Have Miles to Go and Not Much Time

By Roger K. Lewis
Saturday, October 3, 2009

"Darn -- delayed by yet another stimulus-funded road construction project." This thought, which recurs while I'm driving, provokes another: "Will all these widely dispersed road construction projects add up to something that improves mobility in the decades to come?"

If transportation planning and funding continue as in the past, the answer is: probably not.

A few projects -- such as the Intercounty Connector between Montgomery and Prince George's counties and Virginia's Dulles Corridor Metrorail Project -- represent new infrastructure investments, planned years ago, that could measurably improve and sustain long-term regional transportation efficiency.

But other projects, such as widening arterial roads, will increase capacity and relieve congestion only in the short term. And many stimulus-funded repaving projects seem to be little more than cosmetic tweaks.

So how timely that the University of Virginia's Miller Center of Public Affairs hosted a conference last month titled "Beyond Stimulus: Toward a New Transportation Agenda for America."

Many of the nation's top transportation experts converged on Charlottesville to wrestle with difficult questions such as: Is there a crisis? What are the most severe transportation problems, and what should be done to solve them? Which solutions are politically and economically feasible? And what should be the role and responsibilities of the federal government concerning transportation policy and projects?

If a crisis exists, and if transportation is so vital to the economy and so strongly affects energy consumption, carbon emissions and climate change, many also asked why transportation is not higher on the nation's political agenda.

Participants didn't mince words in citing deficiencies in transportation policy, planning and project development at all levels of government and concerning all modes of transportation.

-- There is no national transportation vision analogous to President Dwight D. Eisenhower's historic 1958 interstate highway program. Federal road and rail transportation policy seems fragmented and obsolete.

-- Surface transportation planning has not been adequately coordinated with land-use and zoning, housing, environmental, health and other public-sector planning efforts, much of which occurs at state and local levels.

-- Improving road, rail and transit safety needs more attention. Reportedly, treatment of injuries from car accidents costs $200 billion annually.

-- Intermodality -- one travel mode linking conveniently and efficiently to other modes -- is below par. Smooth, direct connections among airports, transit systems, road networks, railway terminals and ports is often lacking.

-- The gap between funding that's needed for essential transportation infrastructure and funding that's available is wide and growing wider. But, too often, taxpayers are unwilling to finance necessary transportation investments.

-- Not charging for roadway use -- "mispricing" -- guarantees traffic congestion. Most Americans feel that "freeways" and public streets are entitlements and oppose paying for the miles they drive. They also are unaware of how much each mile of roadway and driving costs.

Conference participants proposed several strategies.

Most of the nation's economic activity and population is concentrated in urban regions and will be more so in the future. Therefore, a new transportation agenda must focus on metropolitan, multi-modal initiatives.

Federal, state and local transportation planners must collaborate continually with planners concerned with land use, zoning, housing, health, energy and the environment to achieve smart-growth goals as well as improved mobility.

Vehicle-miles-traveled (VMT) fees seemed to be the preferred method for providing future transportation funding. The rationale is compelling.

With smaller cars powered by new technologies, gasoline consumption is destined to plummet, as is gasoline tax revenue, a primary funding source for building and maintaining roads.

Meanwhile, transponder technology, akin to E-ZPass, could record and charge for miles driven. Like the Intercounty Connector plan, charges could vary with time of day, vehicle type and location. Such systems are operational in some countries.

Conference participants believe that implementing VMT charges is unavoidable. They spoke about risks -- to the U.S. economy, global competitiveness, travel efficacy and safety, the environment and quality of life -- if a new, multi-modal transportation agenda, with new approaches to planning and pricing, is not adopted with urgency.

Roger K. Lewis is a practicing architect and a professor emeritus of architecture at the University of Maryland.

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