The USDOT and the Obama administration are drawing much needed attention to the future of national transportation funding and policy. Here at Trans4M, we are usually transfixed on what’s going on at the local and state level, but today we are going to take a look at the broader picture, to investigate how transportation policy at the federal level connects to us here at home.
The USDOT’s strategic 30 year transportation plan will attempt to redress the tendency of lawmakers to focus on finding short term answers to looming funding crises, while newly proposed legislation from the White House would secure funding over the next six years. Congress voted in August to transfer funds into the nearly insolvent Highway Trust Fund (HTF), the most recent in a series of last minute transfers. As we examined in a previous blog post, the uncertainty of future funding negatively impacts local and state transportation and road projects, which are planned and allocated for years in advance.
The 30 year plan seeks to address what Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx sees as an unfortunate rift in funding and policy goals. Foxx told Politico, “The goal here isn’t to be descriptive. The goal here is to set a context and to frame the choices.” The conversation on transportation funding should include more than just how to get funding, but how that funding can be spent effectively. Performance measures, in conjunction with a long range plan, can help demonstrate the effectiveness of funds in the context of long term improvements. At the state level here in Michigan, MDOT’s long term plan and accompanying measures show progress toward long term goals, including safety, security, effective and efficient operations. A federal level long range plan can bridge this disconnect with state agencies, and help to reduce uncertainty in the state level planning.
Planning will help address multiple factors that stress our current infrastructure. One factor is population, which is set to grow by 70 million over the next 30 years, mostly in the South and West. At the same time the Northeast and Midwest simultaneously need greater investment in transportation to curb the negative effects of aging infrastructure. The increasing number of people choosing to live in urban cores over the suburban fringes are driving a movement for more and better pedestrian, bicycle, and transit infrastructure. Foxx refers to these individuals, many of them millennials, as potential “game changers” in how we perceive our transportation infrastructure.
Major technological changes on the near horizon will also factor into transportation trends over the next 30 years. The potential for autonomous cars, being studied right here in Ann Arbor, could have a major effect on the future design of transportation infrastructure. National and global trends indicate future strain on our current freight network, while shipments are only expected to increase as more people increasingly choose to shop online. Investment in adequate infrastructure to move goods is key to our health as a nation, and our competitiveness in a global economy.
In addition to planning how to spend funds, the Obama administration’s newly proposed legislation, the Grow America Act, will fund roads and transit for the next six years according to goals outlined by the 30 year plan. The proposed act will provide States and local governments with the certainty needed to effectively plan and start construction on projects that will support millions of jobs over the next several years. A recent Transportation for America blog post addresses this nexus of federal and state level funding “aimed at fixing a local street network for the sake of a key economic corridor.” State transportation infrastructure acts as the building blocks of the federal network. The two levels are codependent, and with the current stress on funds the entire network is likely to suffer and deteriorate.
These new initiatives offer an increased federal level commitment to transportation funding. President Obama’s proposed budget attempts to further pursue and prioritize transportation by a proposed 31 percent boost in spending for the upcoming fiscal year, an overall $478 billion over the course of the next 6 years, including a 75 percent increase for mass transit. When the federal government makes a commitment to transportation funding, and plans to spend smartly, the State of Michigan, as well as all others, will benefit greatly from increased certainty in planning and funding state infrastructure. These recent federal initiatives will help to close the rift with State level planning and goal setting, and help to meet the future challenges that transportation funding will face.
Written by Elle Getschman, Trans4M Fellow