I talked with Steve Heminger, head of the Bay Area's regional transportation agency and a member of a bipartisan commission that recommended overhauling the federal transportation program.

What's wrong with our transportation system?

Too often in the past, our approach to a lot of federal spending, not just transportation, has sort of been "ready-fire-aim." We need to know what we are aiming for in the next federal surface transportation program. I am hopeful that we'll start the next debate with the assumption that we're going to make a clean break -- not that we're simply going to reauthorize the current program.

Do state and local governments need to change their thinking, too?

We have spent so many years thinking about this program in terms of how much gas-tax money we send to Washington and what percentage of it we get back. That's just the wrong way to look at this program. Improving a transportation network at various points benefits the entire system. It really doesn't matter as much what states programs are located in.

Our commission suggested long-range objectives that we can lay out for the program: cutting traffic fatalities in half over the next 15 to 20 years, reducing traffic congestion in the major metropolitan areas by 20 to 25 percent over that same period of time. Those objectives drive the policy solutions and the revenue you need to achieve them. Without those objectives, without a vision, I'm afraid we're just going to have the same stale debate about whether Kansas ought to get more money than Nevada. And that's just not the right debate to have.

How should metro areas fit into the new program?

I hope Congress will focus a lot of attention on what we called in our report "metropolitan mobility." The fact is, the top 50 metro areas command 90 percent of the market share when it comes to traffic congestion, transit ridership and air pollution emitted by our automobiles. You've got to put the resources where the problems are. We need to devote much more attention to those metropolitan economies, which are really the engine that's going to restart the American economy.

What are some of the advantages of overhauling our transportation policy?

Transportation is not just about transportation, it's about national security, energy independence and climate change. Mobile sources account for the largest and the fastest-growing sector of C02 emissions. The also account for the largest use of our imported petroleum. If you want to transform the nation's reliance on foreign sources of oil, if you want to dramatically reduce CO2 emissions, you've got to transform transportation. It's about our national security and quality of life.