Road Blocks

In hard times, good sense should prevail. But that's not what's happening with the re-crafting of transportation policy.
November 2003
By Jonathan Walters  |  Senior Editor
A Senior Editor of Governing, Jonathan has been covering state and local public policy and administration for more than 30 years.

There's a bit of desperate optimism pundits retreat to in harsh fiscal years: Tough times are an opportunity to make hard but smart decisions about policy and spending. Underlying this happy maxim is the simple proposition that in flush times there's no real incentive to make difficult, strategic decisions about the long-term collective good, and so special interests are given free reign to claw, scratch and kick around legislatures and executive branch officials in a way that turns policy into a hash. In tough years, though, there's a premium for focusing on efficiency, integration and the overall health, safety and welfare of the public. Special interests just have to climb--or be dragged--onto the bandwagon for a while.

This conventional wisdom is certainly being put to the test right now, particularly with the reauthorization of TEA-21. The Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century, which expired at the end of September, touches every man, woman and child in America and directly affects broader policy areas such as energy, the environment, public safety (including homeland security), the economy and community livability. Historically, it galvanizes powerful and experienced special interests--from highway builders to state transportation officials--who regularly and openly engage in that most common and unseemly game associated with big-ticket legislation such as this: Grab everything you can get your hands on.

So it would be nice to report that in rewriting such a vital, central law, these difficult times inspired the White House and Congress to work openly and sedulously with a broad swath of constituencies on a forward-thinking law reflecting the fact that transportation policy touches us all and in many ways, from how we get to work, to the quality of the air we breathe, to how much oil we have to import to keep moving around. It would also be nice to report the corollary: The usual lineup of special interests behaved a little better this time around.

It would be nice to report all that, except that none of it happened. TEA-21 expired without being reauthorized at all, the victim of typical Washington machinations. The usual suspects converged and jockeyed for the usual things--money and control. Reauthorization was the first casualty. Even the five-month extension of the law was the focus of continuing efforts to strip TEA-21 of some of its most essential and positive elements, such as money for non-traditional projects such as bike paths and historic preservation of train stations. Only the valiant efforts of a handful of solid lawmakers thwarted those efforts.

What makes this all the more discouraging is that the current generation of transportation law in the U.S.--the "TEAs," if you will- -is the result of a remarkable effort on the part of a diverse group of public-interest and good-government groups that came together in the late 1980s in a genuine and remarkable effort to change how this country goes about doing its transportation business.

What the coalition--made up of local planners, cycling enthusiasts, municipal officials, regional government advocates, transit supporters, environmentalists and historic preservationists, just to name a handful of the interests involved--wanted to do was create a little better balance in overall U.S. transportation policy: among the feds, states and localities; between community interests and businesses that make a living off of transportation projects; between real, integrated long-range planning and the old-style state "wish list" of projects; among transportation choices, from roads to rail, buses to bikes; in investment strategies, from building new to fixing the old; in how federal dollars could be spent, shifting from tight formulas to greater flexibility; in criteria for making spending choices, including the effects of projects on mobility as well as on the environment and community; between projects of pure utilitarian nature and some with a little whimsy, such as restoring an old railroad station as a museum.

The results of these balances range from increased investment in existing (and decaying) infrastructure to a boost in the number of startup projects involving alternative modes of transportation. There's also been greater use of public transit--easing pressure on overburdened roads--and much more involvement of local officials in setting statewide and nationwide transportation priorities.

Indeed, the TEA generation of transportation laws represents one of those happy developments in national policy making where common sense and community ethic actually have converged to divert the country from business as usual.

And so it was disconcerting, if not terribly surprising, to see all the positive principles of TEA-21 undermined when the law was up for reauthorization. Apparently, hard times were viewed by some as an opportunity to travel backwards. So the fight over reauthorizing TEA- 21 will proceed in a negative fashion. Advocates of a more sensible, balanced approach to transportation policy will fight the usual rear- guard action and be lucky if they hold their own.