Transportation and Mobility Take a Backseat in Obama Administration

The Obertstar highway bill should be shelved and real transportation reforms should be pursued

Few would have guessed that a $500 billion federal spending commitment would be considered so trivial it could be put off for almost two years. Yet, that’s where we stand in 2009.

With unemployment nearing 10 percent and the federal deficit officially hitting $1 trillion, the Obama administration has decided it has more important priorities than the transportation reauthorization bill in its extreme makeover of the federal government. The administration, via Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, has suggested delaying the six-year highway bill for 18 months while other priorities are dealt with, and the Senate leadership agrees with the White House’s priorities.

In terms of mobility and the nuts-and-bolts of transportation policy, a delay is probably the best idea. Rep. James Oberstar (D-MN) and Rep. John Mica (R-FL) recently put forth their plan for a $450 to $500 billion transportation bill, but omitted one very important part: how to pay for it.

Given that failure, the Obama administration has decided it is better to patch up a $20 billion hole in the Highway Trust Fund and craft the long-term highway bill down the road than it is talking about raising the gas tax to pay for Oberstar’s grand plans.

Unfortunately, congressmen failing to offer a revenue stream for their grand spending plans and presidents looking for short-term transportation fixes aren’t unusual. Our political leaders have notoriously underestimated the importance of mobility and transportation investments to the nation’s economic competitiveness. Most presidents since the 1950s have left the task of managing national transportation priorities to Congress and their appointed secretaries of the U.S. Department of Transportation. And the results have been dismal.

Traffic congestion has climbed steadily for more than 30 years. The Texas Transportation Institute recently reported that traffic delays went down slightly in 2007, but that was due to high gas prices and a weak economy, not improved infrastructure. Delays will pick up again when the economy grows. As it is, travelers in 30 of the nation’s 43 largest urbanized areas waste an entire work week stuck in severe traffic jams each year. Business spending on logistics-getting goods and services from point A to point B-has increased by $413 billion since 2004 in part because of the inefficiencies embedded in our failing transportation system. Traffic congestion’s annual monetary cost to the nation’s economy may exceed $150 billion, and this estimate fails to include the negative impacts on our quality of life from the added stress to commutes, missed dinners and soccer games, and overall narrowing of our world as travel beyond the neighborhood becomes increasingly difficult and expensive.

Given the widespread economic and social costs caused by this gridlock, why is the Obama administration putting transportation policy on the backburner? Quite simply, transportation policy has been deemed less important than the economic stimulus, bankrolling failing companies such as General Motors and AIG, climate change legislation, ramping up federal control over the nation’s health car system, and multiple other issues.

The only substantive transportation policy initiative endorsed by the Obama administration thus far has been the $13 billion in new federal commitments for high-speed rail. Unfortunately, this is likely to be a boondoggle that ends up serving two percent of the traveling public along a few highly traveled corridors in the Northeast and West Coast. It isn’t going to jumpstart the economy, nor will it reduce traffic congestion.

While the Obama administration’s neglect of strategic policymaking has left transportation policy in disarray, a silver lining may be emerging from the haze. A delay in considering major new transportation legislation might finally provide the full public discussion on the future of federal transportation policy that it deserves.

National transportation policy needs to be re-thought. Key issues that need to be elevated into this national discussion include:

  • Keeping federal spending and oversight focused on transportation investments and decisions of national significance;
  • Prioritizing infrastructure investments on mobility to ensure that access to jobs, services, and goods are the focus of the U.S. Department of Transportation;
  • Shifting federal funding toward highway and transit user fees and away from gas taxes to create a more customer-directed and sustainable funding mechanism for transportation projects;
  • Expanding the innovative financing tools and public-private partnerships available to state and local governments so they can tap into private funding sources to supplement public transportation spending;
  • Giving state governments more discretion over what projects deserve the highest priority in meeting their transportation goals and objectives.

Thus far, the Obama administration’s approach to transportation policy has been embarrassingly naïve, viewing projects as job creators rather than essential building blocks for a globally competitive economy. But the Oberstar-Mica transportation bill isn’t real reform or good transportation policy either and it should be shelved.

Ultimately, the solutions to local traffic congestion and rising transportation costs will not be found in Congress or the White House. It’s time to give the states the real power and authority to meet their challenges head-on, while the D.C. establishment plays a supporting role as facilitator rather than the heavy-handed central planner.

Sam Staley, Ph.D., is director of urban growth and land use policy for Reason Foundation and co-author of Mobility First: A New Vision for Transportation in a Globally Competitive 21st Century (Rowman & Littlefield).