When It Comes to Transportation Infrastructure, No Bill Is Better Than a Bad Bill

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Passengers wait to board a New Jersey Transit train at Newark Penn Station. 

This Congress and President Trump have been unable to develop and enact a new federal infrastructure bill after nearly three years of fits, starts, and jokes about “Infrastructure Week” (I have called it “Infrastructure Weak”). This failure is not surprising given the current political dynamics. But you may be surprised to learn that this former state transportation secretary was, and remains, delighted that Washington wasn’t able to come up with a new bill.

It’s not that we don’t need one: Innovative federal transportation proposals are important and overdue, but no bill is better than a bad bill. Based on what we know about the mindset of most of the current decision-makers, every indication thus far is that they would have enacted a very bad bill into law. A bad bill would be one that adheres to the president’s original template, which was nothing more than public-private partnerships on steroids. I’m not philosophically against such partnerships, but their utility is limited and their functionality is largely tied to automobility. A bad bill would also be one that relies on the same approaches to funding that were used to help build the auto-centric transportation system of the 20th century, one that retains the same constrained thinking that has made every prior federal bill a boon for cars and roads.

My pessimism has roots in comments made earlier this year by Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, who upon leaving the White House after one of the president’s periodic calls for an infrastructure bill described a “big bold” transportation bill to mean one that provided federal investment in “roads, bridges, and highways.” That was it; not one single word about transit, or any form of public transportation or sustainable mobility.

Was Schumer using a mere rhetorical shorthand to describe the full breadth of investment opportunities to be provided, or was his vision for a “bold bill” really a throwback to mid-20th-century conventional thinking? One would expect a clearer and more forward-looking approach from a senator representing a highly urban Northeastern state. Speaker Nancy Pelosi, to her credit, spoke at the same time about “getting people out of their cars, not being on the road so much.”

But I was left with the sense that Democrats didn’t have a clear vision for a thoughtful and groundbreaking 21st-century sustainable mobility plan. Such a plan would place emphasis on initiatives that encourage meaningful modal shift—getting people out of single-occupancy vehicles and onto rail or high-occupancy vehicles—and facilitate a larger federal funding role in transit and rail projects.

Transportation bills are rarely, but sometimes can be, transformative. This is what happened in 1991, when the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act became law. Commonly known as ISTEA, the act transformed the way people thought about the use of federal funding for transportation. It created significant flexibility for states to decide whether to spend money on highway projects or to shift that money toward transit projects, empowering local metropolitan planning organizations (known as MPOs), and directly linking air quality as a filter for transportation project selection and funding.

ISTEA was not perfect—no bill is—but it was a watershed moment in the history of federal transportation funding and authorization legislation in its responsiveness to early calls for a more sustainable mobility system. What we need in this century is our own transformational federal transportation bill, one that makes ISTEA pale in comparison.

A good federal transportation bill can’t and shouldn’t be a one-size-fits-all bill, nor should it adhere to the conventions of 20th-century thinking. It should recognize with candor the need to have different approaches for different places—there are legitimate automobility needs in places like Kansas and Montana that are simply not comparable to those in Rhode Island or New Jersey.

The essential problem remains the same regardless of place: Mobility is necessary to provide people with access to key destinations. This access is more than just point-to-point access, although that is a part of it. It is access from the place where you want, and can afford, to live to the opportunities of jobs, shopping, entertainment, health care, and community engagementThis type of access requires federal support for traffic reduction measures in those primarily urban metropolitan centers that are burdened by worsening traffic congestion.

One solution would be to enact a law that would simultaneously remove all federal constraints on states’ ability to toll or price interstate highways, while at the same time providing federal financial support (I’m thinking 80 percent federal match funding) for the reimagination of intercity rail—electrifying older systems that rely on inefficient, costly, and highly polluting diesel locomotive power, and enabling investment in the kind of infrastructure and equipment that enable intercity rail systems to provide schedule frequencies throughout the day (not just during peak travel times) that make rail more attractive to more people. Other investments in infrastructure and equipment that improve train speed and reduce the time a train is stopped at a station should also be eligible for federal funding.

Why should the federal government be more directly involved in funding and supporting these initiatives? A massive, robust intercity rail system that is viably competitive with driving, together with the strategic use of road pricing (this could be tolls, congestion pricing, orcharging drivers based on the number of miles traveled), can encourage the kind of behavioral changes that are the sine qua non of a sustainable mobility system. In a time when our national economy and quality of life are threatened by the high costs of traffic congestion and poor access to opportunity, not to mention climate change, the need to build a 21st-century intercity rail system is as important to our national security as the interstate system was in the 1960s. This is not hyperbole.

If we continue on our current path, we are condemning ourselves and future generations to the unrelenting consequences of a system that cannot provide reliable, environmentally sensitive transport in many metropolitan areas across the nation. No great economy can sustain itself if its people lack dependable access to key destinations. For a brief time in the 20th century, that dependable mobility came from the automobile. In many places in America today, that is no longer true and hasn’t been for a while. It’s time to invest heavily and strategically in modern intercity rail as a national strategy.

A good infrastructure bill would do more. It would reverse the shameful federal characterization of cycling and walking as “enhancements” and embrace them as essential components of urban mobility that ought to be given a status and priority on a par with rail, buses, and other modes, particularly in urban environments. It would also provide innovative incentives for the private sector to play a meaningful role in sustainability, such as building out a nationally robust electric-vehicle (EV) charging infrastructure. It wasn’t the public sector that built out the vast national network of commercial gas stations that literally fuel auto mobility. What makes us think we will have the kind of ubiquitous EV charging infrastructure without the private sector, the entities that own most of the off-street parking in the nation?

Transportation advocates can get something great accomplished, but not if one of our key allies thinks that a “bold” bill means doubling down on roads, bridges, and highways. That should give everyone pause, and it should make us realize that a lot of work remains to be done to get the kind of bill that responds to and reflects contemporary needs and values. Now that would be big and bold.

The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee released its five-year surface transportation bill Monday for fiscal 2021 through 2025. From all reports, it is largely more of the same, with the lion’s share of funding directed to highway and bridge projects, while proposing to add EV charging stations to the interstate highway system. But funding remains a question mark. This is only one early step in a longer process to reauthorize the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation Act (FAST), set to expire before the presidential election, but here’s hoping that those in the House who are serious about pursuing anything resembling a “Green New Deal” will push hard to reject a bad five-year bill and refuse to support anything but short-term funding authorizations until a better sustainable mobility bill can be enacted into law.

A continuing effort to inform all elected officials and persuade them to embrace transportation policies that correspond to changing technologies, regional travel patterns, and the larger movement toward sustainability should begin with preparing and distributing a strong list of transformative initiatives for inclusion in the next bill. The mobility needs and preferences of the 21st century require that we must move way beyond the approaches and the conventions of the past, and I’m more than willing to wait until we get it right, even if it means projects and progress lag for a while.

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