Guide to Transportation Spending: Signs of the TEA Generation

ISTEA and TEA-21 were designed to overhaul state highway habits and refocus spending. Is that what's happening?
by | May 2002

Bill Vidal was hooked on asphalt. As Colorado's transportation secretary during the 1990s, he stayed addicted to pavement through a decade of seismic shifts in federal transportation policy--shifts toward a wider array of transportation options and reinvigorated partnerships with regional planning groups. "We were really a department of highways, and we were trying to get projects out the door and obligate dollars," Vidal says of his philosophy.

The Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act of 1991--known more familiarly as ISTEA--and its offspring, the Transportation Enhancement Act of 1998--TEA-21--were supposed to help people such as Vidal kick the highway habit. The TEAs encouraged closer ties to metropolitan planning organizations, whose view of transportation tends to extend beyond the highway. Naturally, Vidal viewed MPOs, such as the Denver Area Council of Governments, as "just one more bureaucratic hoop" in moving projects off paper and onto dirt. Emboldened by ISTEA and TEA-21, those pesky MPOs were constantly nagging Vidal to consider spending for alternative and multi-modal transportation instead of wider highways and new interchanges.

Then, in a cosmic twist of fate, Vidal found himself out of a job--a new governor took the helm--just as the Denver COG was looking for a new executive director. If it wasn't a match made in heaven, the match was still made, and with it came a rather profound change in perspective for Vidal. He is now absolutely fluent in the lexicon of multi-modalism, long-range planning and the imperative of local control and is leading the charge for a more balanced approach to mobility statewide, which is what ISTEA and TEA-21 were really all about.

Vidal, in other words, embodies the yin and yang of transportation policy in the United States: the tug and pull between centralized state control versus extensive local input, between roads and transit, between building and planning. The TEA-generation of national transportation policy has, in the view of Pennsylvania Transportation Secretary Brad Mallory, led to an era in which states have been able to customize projects in direct relation to state and local need, whether those projects are narrow bike paths or wide highways.

Not everyone thinks the process of state transportation planning has become all that rational in the TEA era. The decades-old debate about spending on new highways versus greater investment in transit rages on, and some MPOs still complain about being shut out by state transportation officials. But it's hard to argue that TEA-21 hasn't carried forward the fundamental tenet of considerable spending flexibility for states--and with 40 percent more money than under ISTEA. What that means is that for better or for worse, states now have a lot more control over what they spend their federal transportation dollars on these days, and a lot more dollars to spend.


Looking at the types of projects that TEA-21 money has funded, it is clear that spending is very much a reflection of state and local politics and personality. The range of projects funded by TEA-21 runs the gamut, from a new 122-mile turnpike connecting Austin and San Antonio to laying the last rails for Washington, D.C.'s, 103-mile subway system. But above all, what TEA-21 purchased, Mallory says, is certainty. Under TEA-21, the Highway Trust Fund--home to all federal fuel tax receipts--was officially dedicated to spending on transportation as opposed to its more-than-occasional traditional use: offsetting federal budget deficits. Under TEA-21, states were guaranteed a set level of funding backed by the highway trust fund, with the possibility of increases if federal fuel tax receipts went up, a provision of TEA-21 called "Revenue Aligned Budget Authority," or RABA for short. "With predictable funding, we were able to put a lot more projects in the pipeline and so our construction program increased dramatically," says Mallory, who is also the current president of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO).

While no transportation officials worth their road salt will ever admit that they're awash in money, TEA-21 certainly floated a fleet of projects. But if there is one theme to TEA-21 construction spending to date, it's been "fix it first," says Steve Heminger, executive director of the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, which is the San Francisco Bay area's MPO, one of the largest in the country.

The emphasis on bridge and road repair has been a national and necessary phenomenon, addressing as it does the huge inventory of roads and bridges creaking past their useful engineering life expectations. One of the major projects on the docket in the Bay area, for example, is replacing the old traffic- and earthquake-worn San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, Heminger says. The plan is for a new single-tower suspension bridge, which officials estimate will cost $2.6 billion and take six years to complete. In keeping with the second theme of Bay Area transportation planning--alternative transit- -the 43,500-foot span will accommodate not only trucks and cars but pedestrians and cyclists, as well. The plan for the bay bridge is one of the more dramatic replacement projects kicked off under TEA-21. But the list of fix-it-up projects under the law is gigantic, ranging from rebuilding a covered bridge in Washington County, New York to the $1.6 billion rebuilding of 17-miles of Interstate 15 in and around Salt Lake City, a project undertaken in preparation for the 2002 Winter Olympics.

Pennsylvania, which has a representative mix of rural and urban regions, and the kind of weather and traffic that beats roads to a pulp, had a typical range of such projects, including $82 million to improve two roads in York County; $127.2 million to fix up roads, tunnels and bridges around Pittsburgh; $172 million for highway upgrades in and around Philadelphia; and $24.7 million for interstate reconstruction around Erie. All totaled, nearly 80 percent of TEA-21 spending on major construction projects in Pennsylvania was for reconstruction and rebuilding of existing systems. The payoff: Pennsylvania's overall rough road ranking on the International Roughness Index has gone from 150--a bad score--to the mid-90s, "a point at which people don't much notice," which is the whole idea, says Mallory.


While spending on maintenance and repair has increased dramatically, spending on new and wider bridges and roads stayed flat until just recently. In 1990, new construction accounted for 34 percent of all federal transportation spending. By late 1998, it had dipped down to 24 percent. But a year later, the percentage jumped to 27 percent, which the Surface Transportation Policy Project regards as a troubling indication that states are returning to the old "building our way out of congestion" approach to the mobility business.

One of the biggest new road projects receiving TEA-21 funding is Boston's infamous "Big Dig," which builds up lanes, bridges, tunnels and interchanges through Boston's notoriously traffic-clogged downtown. By significantly adding capacity, Big Dig hopes to clear up major north-south bottlenecks and ease the path to and from Logan Airport.

Other major construction TEA-21 projects around the country include widening sections of I-90 in Montana (replete with an adjacent rails- to-trails project, project boosters note). Meanwhile, Florida is spending nearly $55 million on a road-widening frenzy for state and other roadways in Brevard, Duval, Osceola and Palm Beach counties, just to mention a few of the dozens of capacity-increasing projects there. At the same time, says Florida Transportation Secretary Tom Barry, the state is investing millions to improve road and rail connections to the state's 14 deep-water ports.

Arizona is widening interstates around Tucson and Phoenix and boosting road connections to its border with Mexico. TEA-21 money helped build new bridges across the Missouri River in St. Louis and is now funding construction of the longest cable-stayed span in the continental United States, a $206 million four-lane bridge across the Mississippi River just outside of Greenville, Mississippi.


For those who want Americans to get out of their cars and into alternative modes of transit, TEA-21 is a glass part full but still way too empty. During the 1990s, federal funding for transit had increased to $6 billion in 1999, from $3 billion in 1990, according to STPP's 10-year federal spending analysis. And according to AASHTO, $6.5 billion has been "flexed" from road funds to transit in that same time period. It's a considerable boost in funding for everything from rail to buses, but according to the STPP report, almost $50 billion out of a total of $190 billion in federal spending between 1992 and 1999 could have been flexed away from road construction and toward transit. Moreover, transit advocates argue, authorized spending levels for transit still represent too small a percentage of overall federal transportation spending.

The argument that alternative transportation modes such as transit should receive a larger share because they are the ultimate answer to the nation's transportation woes strikes PennDOT's Mallory as a reflexive refrain. "Transit is neither inherently good nor inherently bad; roads are neither inherently good nor inherently bad," he says. "What you're after is mobility."

While transit advocates may be dissatisfied with spending levels under the two TEAs, its hard to argue that transit's profile has not been raised considerably by the laws' more sweeping and flexible approach to transportation and transportation planning. Among the projects backed by TEA-21 dollars are a 24-mile light rail system that would connect the Seattle-Tacoma airport with Seattle's business and university districts; new light rail in Dallas and New Jersey; and an 8.1-mile light rail system to connect New York City's John F. Kennedy Airport with terminals, car rentals, parking and other commuter lines. TEA-21 money has helped build a train tunnel in Alaska, pay for hybrid electric buses in Orange County, California, and add water taxis in Duval County, Florida. TEA-21 funds have been used to expand, upgrade and rebuild portions of transit systems from Portland, Oregon--which celebrated the grand opening of its downtown streetcar service last July--to Philadelphia, where $370 million is going into reconstruction of the city's Market Street Transit Line. TEA-21 money has also gone to improving freight rail systems: $5 million in Dade County, Florida, for example, for beefing up CSX rights-of-way there.

According to AASHTO figures, TEA-21 money funded 200 new or expanded rail and bus rapid-transit projects in 40 states. There are a lot more projects out there that local planners would like to fund, but resources aren't available.


Besides moving toward a better balance between transit and roads, the TEA generation of federal transportation laws is supposed to do one other thing: take into account the impact of transportation projects on communities. One of the more controversial elements of ISTEA when it was first passed was its "enhancements" program, which asked states to spend a portion of federal transportation money on a variety of alternative, aesthetics- and community-based transportation-related projects. Money could be used for everything from building bike paths to refurbishing old railroad stations as museums or working transportation hubs. To old-line transportation types, the enhancements program was akin to spending Defense Department money on pink bows for tanks. To advocates, however, it was a recognition that there should be more to improving transportation's impact on communities than just creating wide new swaths of asphalt to give SUVs more room to roam.

Whatever initial leeriness there might have been over the enhancement program, enlightened transportation officials quickly realized the program's potential public relations power, and it has proved to be incredibly popular as it puts a more human face on transportation spending. State transportation reports are now peppered with pictures of balloon-festooned gatherings around Main Street rehab projects and pedestrian overpasses, multi-modal transportation visitor centers and railroad museums. The enhancements program has come to be considered an effective vehicle for getting funds to localities for easy-to-like community development projects. "It's been an incredible way to encourage community involvement," says Florida's Tom Barry, "and it's been some of the best transportation dollars we've spent since ISTEA passed."

Just consider a list out of Texas alone, not a state known for its dedication to the softer side of getting around: $1 million for the renovation of the Quanah, Acme & Pacific Railroad Depot in Roaring Springs; a $300,000 hiking and biking trail in Corpus Christi; $1.1 million for sidewalk and streetscape improvements in Rowlett; and $3.5 million statewide for preserving historic bridges, just to name a mere handful of the more than 100 enhancement projects selected for funding in Texas this year.


Although it hasn't come easily, and there's plenty of room for improvement, according to local officials, there is one other intangible that TEA-generation legislation has helped buy, and that is an arguably more expansive, enlightened attitude on the part of state transportation departments toward both local governments and local citizens.

The old days of ram-it-through-the-neighborhood-style road projects signed, sealed and delivered by state highway officials are fading fast, argues PennDOT's Mallory. "We now not only consult with our MPOs, we've expanded that to the entire planning apparatus of the state," he says. "We work with local development districts and do heavy consultation even in rural areas."

Worn out by past back-and-forth battles between various interest groups, Pennsylvania is, in fact, trying a whole new approach to new construction. For example, on a 27-mile freeway linking I-99 and I-80- -a major project in the central part of the state--officials have convened a working group made up of citizens representing a wide variety of interests, and has allowed them to get directly involved in coming up with the alignment and design of the new highway. "We've gone out to the communities and said, 'Here are the maps, here are the grease pencils, you show us where you want to see the alignment,'" says George Khoury, the district engineer who is heading up the project. Khoury figures that the new collaborative approach to planning will knock 40 percent off the time it typically takes to move a project from plan to site work.

Even in states that are famous for snubbing local government, relations between local officials and state DOTs seem to be improving under TEA-21. This has certainly been the situation in Arizona. "We had a big fight with the state transportation board when TEA-21 first passed," says Tom Swanson, who heads up the Pima County MPO, anchored by Tucson. "The board was rural dominated and so they parked a lot of the TEA-21 money out in rural districts." By joining forces with the Maricopa County MPO, which is centered on Phoenix, the MPO was able to make enough noise to force a parlay with state transportation officials. The result, says Swanson, has been a much stronger say for the Pima and Maricopa County MPOs in what have become the priority transportation construction projects in the state.


Still, MPOs would like more of a guarantee when it comes to input in state transportation planning, and more direct money for local projects. Currently, only MPOs representing populations of 200,000 or more get an official seat at the state planning table, by virtue of some federal pass-through money that goes right into their coffers. As discussions gear up for "TEA-3"--the next in the line of TEA- generation transportation laws--the Association of Metropolitan Planning Organizations will be pushing for a new MPO population cutoff: 50,000, which would boost the number of MPOs eligible for direct federal money from 340 to more than 1,000.

But if tussles over control of the cash continue to divide states and localities and continue to be a friction point between transit advocates and road builders, there is one issue that unites them all: the amount of cash to be tussled over. And it only took the Bush administration's 2003 transportation budget request, which cuts heavily into federal transportation funding, to bring all transportation interests from every side of the road and the tracks together.

Which is why President Bush will undoubtedly learn the same lesson that others before him have learned: When it comes to transportation, there is always something for someone to love, whether it's a rehabbed 19th-century railroad station or a new inner-city light-rail system; a smooth new highway or a section of interstate rendered free of potholes and cracks. TEA-21 has helped buy all those things and a whole lot more. Any politician who wants to get in the way of that kind of love does so at his peril.