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Congress Is Stuck in the Old Road Funding Paradigm

Robert Poole
August 10, 2008, 10:41am

How threatening a shift from allocation by formula to allocation via performance-based competitive grants would be is illustrated by recent reactions in Congress to the DOT's Urban Partnership Agreement (UPA) competition. To recap briefly, as a result of public outcries over "bridges to nowhere" and other earmarking-gone-wild in SAFETEA-LU, Congress held off on earmarking about $850 million of transportation funds in fiscal year 2007. The Office of the Secretary, as part of DOT's Congestion Initiative (launched by former Secretary Norm Mineta), decided to use those funds to spur actual implementation of congestion pricing in a handful of highly congested urban areas. After announcements in late 2006 and a workshop for potential applicants during the Transportation Research Board annual meeting in January 2007, DOT received 26 initial applications for UPA. Some did not fully comply with the requirements (e.g., by proposing to study, but not implement, pricing, or by including transit but not tolling). After weeding those out, the nine semi-finalists were eventually winnowed down to the five best: New York, Miami, Minneapolis, San Francisco, and Seattle. While the New York State legislature ultimately failed to give New York City the legal authority to implement area pricing in lower Manhattan, the other four are going forward, with Miami's new 95 Express lanes set to open this month. It seemed to take quite awhile for members of Congress to notice what was going on. But those who spoke out were not at all happy about UPA. Rep. John Oliver (D, MA) called for a GAO investigation. And Rep. Joe Knollenberg (R, MI) raked Secretary Peters over the coals at a hearing in February, saying he had major concerns. "I've heard from a variety of people around the country who are very upset . . . because they didn't get it. I'm wondering if there wasn't [sic] some people that were overlooked, and frankly I don't know that that decision was one that was best for the entire country." He complained that a traffic reduction plan "in my own backyard" did not get funded. "They thought they were going to be able to compete, but they couldn't compete. They couldn't even get heard." (Traffic World, Feb. 18, 2008) This really sounds to me like the enti tlement mentality at work. But what really takes the cake is a letter from Rep. John Mica (R,FL) published in the Wall Street Journal on July 30, 2008. Responding to a WSJ op-ed by Club for Growth's Pat Toomey criticizing congressional earmarks in transportation, Mica equated a competitive grant program (UPA) with earmarking of pet projects by members of Congress. "Instead of sending funds to projects in nearly every state, unelected bureaucrats, through a closed process without public hearings or congressional consultation, sent every penny to just five cities for congestion pricing projects. . . . In the end, unelected bureaucrats spent more than $1 billion on projects of their choosing." So that is how the Republican leader of the House Transportation Committee describes a performance-based, competitive grant program. You can now appreciate how big of a change the Mary Peters DOT has proposed in its "Refocus. Reform. Renew" proposal. Reason Foundation's Transportation Research

Robert Poole is Searle Freedom Trust Transportation Fellow and Director of Transportation Policy


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