A Midterm Lay of the Land: Transportation


The 2014 election has come and gone. New state legislators, governors and members of Congress are waking up to the fact that they are now in charge of running the country and are planning their transition to power.

There’s no better time to take a step back and take stock of where we are as a country on the issues that will shape our future. Over the coming weeks, Frontier Group analysts will be providing their take on the lay of the land on the issues on which they work in 1,000 words or less.  

First up: transportation.

America’s auto-centered transportation system is deeply flawed. It kills upwards of 35,000 people per year and injures 3.8 million more, at an annual cost to society of $871 billion. It produces 5% of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions[1] – helping to accelerate global warming – and air pollution that sends more than 50,000 Americans a year to an early grave. It leaves little space for healthy activities like biking and walking, and enables a sprawl-driven model of development that makes us fat and sick and is fiscally unsustainable for our communities.

Even with all that pain, our transportation system often fails to deliver: millions endure paralyzing traffic congestion,[2] even as we spend more on transportation than any household expense other than housing. Meanwhile, our transportation system often leaves a large chunk of the population – the young, the poor, the old and the disabled – either ill-served or not served at all.

The American people get this. They are veritably jumping up and down, begging for alternatives to soul-crushing commutes, gridlock and pain at the pump. Young people are making the loudest statements – driving less, voting with their feet by flocking to walkable neighborhoods, and demanding better transportation alternatives.

Local governments are trying to respond. They recognize that the issue of how to accommodate more vibrant, more sustainable urban life is an existential one for cities in the 21st century. This sense of “you snooze, you lose” urgency is leading to both smart, innovative ideas and hare-brained schemes worthy of the Simpsons.

Given these realities, one would think that federal and state transportation policies would be laser focused on expanding Americans’ access to transportation options that are good for our pocketbooks, our health and the planet, as well as on maintaining the existing roads, bridges and transit networks on which millions of Americans depend.  

Yet, despite the fact that Americans aren’t driving any more than we did in 2005, we continue to spend vast amounts of money on the thing we need least: new and expanded highways. As of 2010, we were still spending roughly $27 billion each year to build more and bigger highways – some of them out-and-out boondoggles.

Who is paying for those new highways? Increasingly, it’s not drivers. The federal government has spent more general tax revenue to prop up the Highway Trust Fund since 2008 – $52 billion – than it has spent to subsidize Amtrak in its entire 42-year history. (Amtrak, at least – and incredibly, given the stuff it has to deal with – keeps seeing increases in ridership and revenue. Just imagine what ridership would look like if we actually invested enough to build a decent passenger rail system.)

Some have suggested shifting the highway funding burden back to drivers by increasing the gas tax, but drivers have thus far had a simple response: No. Proposals for alternative fees such as tolls and per-mile charges haven’t been met with showers of rose petals either. At the local and state levels, the picture is a little bit different – there, taxpayers often express the willingness to pay for transportation improvements, especially if they know and like what they’ll be getting in return. But at the federal level, both parties remain committed (at least at the highest levels) to keeping the bulldozers churning on projects of dubious necessity, and equally committed to not asking drivers to pony up their share of the cost.

So: We spend too much money on the wrong things, damaging our environment, health and wellbeing, while policymakers ignore increasingly loud demands for a new direction. We get more and more of the money we spend on those ill-considered projects from the people who benefit from them the least. We remain wedded to forecasting models that are consistently wrong and policy constructs that haven’t made sense for decades. And we have barely begun to evaluate the potential of new technologies and tools to solve problems we once thought could only be solved by laying asphalt.

What to do? Some suggest getting the federal government out of the game entirely and throwing the burden back on the states – despite the fact that the states already have most of the power to make transportation investment decisions and often make a mess of it. (A few are getting better, though.) Others see the problem as primarily about money. Others think the whole infrastructure problem is overblown, or that public investments in infrastructure are inherently illegitimate.

The real solution doesn’t fit into a sound bite nor does it fit into any particular ideology. It begins with a national conversation about our transportation needs, goals and priorities – a conversation that we haven’t had in a serious way since at least the adoption of ISTEA in 1991. That conversation needs to focus on how transportation investments help or hinder our achievement of key societal goals, including improved public health, reductions in greenhouse gases, expanded economic opportunity and improved quality of life.

We will almost certainly need to raise (and possibly to spend) more money than we do now, if for nothing else than to preserve our existing assets and make long-overdue investments in things like transit and passenger rail. But we can’t afford to build everything anyone might want, which is why we need rigorous criteria for prioritizing investments, and a vigilant open-mindedness about new technologies and tools that can improve transportation outcomes at lower costs.

The good news, if you can call it that, is that our transportation policy has become so absurd that its brokenness is increasingly accepted by folks across the political spectrum. Not everyone has the same diagnosis or recommendations for treatment, of course, but the opportunity for full, honest and creative debate about our transportation needs and priorities has never been greater. Let’s hope that the new Congress and state legislatures will allow space for that long-overdue debate to take place.



[1] Data from EPA Greenhouse Gas Emissions inventory and Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency

[2] Yes, I’m citing Texas A&M’s Urban Mobility Report here. Yes, I’m aware of its many, many flaws.