Simplify DOT Regulations Regarding Long-range Transportation Planning

Commentary

Simplify DOT Regulations Regarding Long-range Transportation Planning

Today we present our final of six changes Reason Foundation recommends Congress adapt in the upcoming surface transportation reauthorization. This change focuses on simplifying DOT regulations regarding conformity determination. Past recommendations include eliminating the TIGER grants requiring MPOs to analyze whether their long-range transportation plans reduce congestion, adding taxpayer protections to the RRIF program, eliminating surface transportation funding for non-federal modes, and simplifying conformity regulations for transportation plans.

Since 1964 federal laws and amendments (23 USC 134 and 49 USC 5303) have required that states and urbanized areas exceeding 50,000 population carry out a short-term and long-range “continuing, cooperative and comprehensive multimodal transportation planning process” as a condition for federal aid. Sensible at first, the “3C” process now mandates a wide range of required assessments, including air quality, environmental justice, congestion management, safety, maintenance, efficiency, freight, pedestrian-bike, economic growth, fuel consumption and other requirements. Although some requirements have been relaxed for smaller regions, recent regulations call for expanded time horizons and new “planning factors,” among others. More rules for climate change, international trade, active transportation and sustainability are likely. These requirements and frequent updates hit smaller regions with fewer staff harder.

We recommend that regions having less than 200,000 people eliminate all long-range transportation planning mandates and require 10-year transportation improvement plan (TIP) updates. For regions with greater than 200,000 people, eliminate or reduce regulations for air quality monitoring and conformity, environmental justice, congestion management, economic impact, safety, fuel consumption and 40-year planning horizons. For the TIP, remove the option that projects come from a long-range transportation plan. Review other requirements for possible reduction or elimination.

Recent reviews of metropolitan transportation plans find that many are dense documents full of feel-good unachievable goals only marginally related to transportation. Frequent update cycles mean that “planning never stops.” Worse, many plans generally ignore rising congestion and infrastructure maintenance, and depend heavily on federal/state resources for implementation. But the federal role is declining as local, state and private roles increase. As a result most plans are then ignored and shelved until the next update. The cost of this wasted and inefficient planning is substantial-about $500M annually. In short, transportation planning has become a convenient catch-all for pushing other local goals, and a hurdle for self-certification and funding continuation, not a sensible effort to establish future transportation visions.

These changes would bring federal requirements into line with the declining federal role in local transportation issues. Most projects are local in impact, not national. The cost of current planning, about $1B annually, could probably be halved, leaving more resources for implementation, which would speed project development and create jobs. Localities would have more control over essentially local transportation decisions.

David T. Hartgen

David T. Hartgen is Emeritus Professor of Transportation Studies at UNC Charlotte. Professor Hartgen is widely known in transportation circles. He established UNC Charlotte's Center for Interdisciplinary Transportation Studies in 1989 and now teaches and conducts research in transportation policy and planning. He is the author of about 330 studies on a wide variety of topics in transportation policy and planning, is the U.S. editor of the international academic journal Transportation, and is active in professional organizations. He is a frequent media interviewee in local and national outlets. Before coming to Charlotte he directed the statistics, traffic forecasting and analysis functions of the New York State Department of Transportation and served as a Policy Analyst at the Federal Highway Administration. He holds engineering degrees from Duke University and Northwestern University. He has taught at SUNY Albany, Union College and Syracuse University and lectures widely. His studies of the comparative performance of transportation systems have received nation-wide attention. He has also recently completed a major component of Reason's Mobility Study that estimates the cost of significantly reducing road congestion nation-wide, a comprehensive study of congestion in North Carolina, and a comparative study of the 50 state highway systems . His current research includes an assessment of the economic impact of highways in South Carolina, a review of transportation performance for the provinces of Canada, a national study of business impacts of congestion, and an assessment of congestion in mid-sized cities.