"One of the problems with our transportation policy is that we don't have one," said George Smerk, professor of transporation in the school of business at Indiana University.
Smerk's trenchant analysis is supported by the facts. The National Transportation Policy Study Commission, which completed its report to Congress last summer (but did not establish a policy) said that during its study it "identified 64 agencies with transportation responsibilites in the federal government alone, and more than 1,000 policies and programs administered by these agencies." The proliferation of federal interest has been accompanied over the years by a dramtic decrease in local control of transportation questions, the commission said.
The problem, as Smerk Sees it, is that "there is no constituency for transportation as a whole."
If there is a highway problem, there is a strong highway lobby to deal with it. The transit lobby is growing. The aviation lobby has been powerful for years. But none of these groups -- and no federal agency -- ever asks if somebody else could do the job better.
Even the Department of Transportation is organized in such a way that only one person -- the secretary -- is empowered to look at the big picture. When DOT was organized, the various transportation lobbies -- and their proptective subcommittees on Capitol Hill -- were successful in isolating their various interests.
There are separate administrations for highways, for transit, for aviation, for railroads, for highway safety. DOT includes the Coast Guard (except in time of war) and the St. Lawrence Seaway Development Corporation. It does not include the Federal Maritime Administration, which is over in Commerce, or independent regulatory bodies such as the Interstate Commerce Commission and the Civil Aeronautics Board.
Further complicating the matter is the fact that transportation policy is frequently inextricable from at least three other subjects: land use policy, environmental policy and energy policy.
The Environmental Protection Agency and the Federal Aviation administration, to cite one example, have been fighting for years over who should determine aviation noise limits. The new Department of Energy did not even mention the word tranportation in the Carter administration's first energy policy, though transportation uses 53 percent of the petroleum consumed in the United States.
"I don't know that we need a vision of the transportation system," said Transportation Secretary Neil Goldschmidt in an interview. "That always turns out to be somebody's design of a monorail."
The central concern for the Department of Transportation, Goldschmidt said, should be a "conservation of resources."
"I would argue very strongly," he said, "that it would be a mistake of really quantum propertions for the country to embark on a new generation of capital investment . . . Without having pretty much assured itself that it has the capability to take care of what it owns."