The Stunning Descent of the US DOT Impact

I have an article on today’s National Review On-Line discussing the waning influence of the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) in terms of policy impact and leadership. Before the Obama Administration took office, the DOT was engaged in programs and policies that targeted the broad base of the traveling public. It encouraged public private partnerships to build transit and road facilities. It pushed the envelope on road pricing as a strategy for identifying stable revenue streams for transportation as well as manage the network more efficiently.

As the infrastructure funding gap widens into the hundreds of billions of dollars, and the gas tax looses its effectiveness as a funding tool, DOT is no where to be found in the debate or discussion.

Today, DOT has been pushed to the margins of transportation policy debate with high-speed rail as its signature initiative. The problem is high speed rail targets and exceptionally narrow segment of the traveling public. To date, DOT hasn’t been much more than a conduit for funds from the ill-conceived and inefficient stimulus program

I write:

The last twelve months have shown convincingly that transportation issues can’t compete with signature Obama initiatives such as health-care reform, climate-change measures, or economic-recovery plans, even as our annual infrastructure deficit balloons into the hundreds of billions of dollars. More than one year into the Obama administration’s tenure, federal transportation policy languishes, a stepchild to the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act and the victim of half-hearted attempts to promote mass transit as an alternative to the more nimble automobile.

Until January, the DOT served as little more than a spigot for federal dollars to fund a dubious jobs program. While the department justifiably bragged of its ability to get dollars out the door, many of these projects were low-priority — they had already been passed over by state transportation departments for higher-priority projects. No attempt was made to distinguish projects that might improve traffic speeds or reduce congestion from make-work curb replacements on local roads.

The administration’s high-speed-rail initiative is at least conceived as an actual transportation program with a goal of improving mobility between cities. But the plan’s stunningly narrow impact disqualifies it as a marquee program. Intercity rail currently accounts for less than 1 percent of all travel in the U.S. It will compete primarily with short-haul (less than 500 miles) air travel, but all air travel, including long-haul trips, accounts for just 10.8 percent of all travel in the U.S. Even if the project is a success, business travelers and well-heeled tourists will reap most of the benefits.

The effects of this shift in priority and impact are potentially devastating for the long-term economic competitiveness of US cities and national economy. Mobility will fall as congestion continues to ramp up with economic activity. Without bold leadership, transportation initiatives will increasingly be starved for funds.

The solution is to devolve decisionmaking and funding back to the state level, but this will require bold leadership that is in short supply in the Obama Administration.

Samuel R. Staley, Ph.D. is a senior research fellow at Reason Foundation and managing director of the DeVoe L. Moore Center at Florida State University in Tallahassee where he teaches graduate and undergraduate courses in urban planning, regulation, and urban economics. Prior to joining Florida State, Staley was director of urban growth and land-use policy for Reason Foundation where he helped establish its urban policy program in 1997.