Watered-Down TEA

This is supposed to be the era of enlightened federal transportation policy. Sometimes you have to wonder.
May 1, 2007 AT 3:00 AM
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.

Back in 1991, when Congress passed the Intermodal Surface and Transportation Enhancement Act - ISTEA, as it has been known ever since - many called it the dawning of an intelligent, flexible and intergovernmentally friendly transportation policy age.

It was the first federal transportation law that actually recognized the wide variation in state-by-state transportation spending needs. It moved to end an era that shoveled federal transportation dollars almost exclusively to asphalt and concrete, with money for transit a distant afterthought.

ISTEA also sought to pull metropolitan planning organizations more forcefully into the overall transportation planning picture, in an effort to achieve at least some balance between the locally based MPOs and dictatorial, highway-happy state transportation departments. With a stronger MPO role, it was hoped, more rational regional transportation projects - especially transit projects - would have a shot at being funded.

Sixteen years later, events on the transportation spending and planning front are a bit discouraging. The third installment in the "TEA" generation of transportation law (the second was "TEA-21") is SAFETEA-LU, which sounds like a square dance but is actually known in full as the Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act: A Legacy for Users. This law, passed in 2005, was hailed as continued positive progress on the national transportation funding front.

But what the Federal Highway Administration touts as $244.1 billion in "guaranteed" federal funds - "the largest surface transportation investment in our Nation's history" - has been whittled away by increasing amounts every year. And the patterns of the whittling harken back to the distant asphalt-happy past.

This year Congress rescinded a record $3.7 billion in transportation spending. Cuts to individual states have been made in proportion to their overall annual take, ranging from more than $300 million in California to $15 million in Vermont.

In making the rescissions, Congress has left it up to state transportation departments to decide where to cut. If past patterns hold, it will be local governments and the more transit- and alternative mode-oriented programs that take it in the neck.

In the case of past rescissions, three programs in particular have been targeted. They are among the programs that funnel the most money directly to municipal and regional entities. Advocates believe that they'll be hit hard again this year. Two of the three meet critical transportation needs. The third is a favorite of local officials because of the high visibility the community-friendly projects often have.

The first two are the Bridge Program and the Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality Improvement (CMAQ) Program. The former has funneled millions to local road systems where bridge upgrades and repairs have long been pegged as an area of critical need. CMAQ, meanwhile, provides a pot of money that can easily be "flexed" toward a variety of uses - anything from subways to HOV lanes - aimed at helping metro regions identified as "non-attainment areas" for ozone and carbon monoxide clean up their air.

The third area that's been hit hard is the Transportation Enhancements Program, funding that can be used in a variety of sometimes whimsical but generally creative ways, such as restoring old trolley cars and building rails-to-trails projects.

But state transportation departments - with some notable exceptions - have never been known for great sensitivity to what anyone outside their insular worlds seems to want. Indeed, the pattern of cuts is clear testimony to the fact that many state transportation departments still have a long way to go in their views of both transportation and the role of outside partners - local and regional governments in particular - in planning and funding.

More and deeper rescissions are on the way next year. This is a crucial reason for all those in the transportation world to stand together in support of sensible and balanced policy, instead of turning the march of rescissions into a vehicle that creates obvious winners and losers.