WASHINGTON, April 6, 2016 - Although Congress finally passed a five-year bill to fund surface transportation at the end of 2015, its $60 billion a year in federal funding was essentially divvied out via formulas more than 30 years old, and U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx says that needs to change.
“This country is growing,” he told an audience recently at the Center for American Progress. “We will have 70 million more people (to serve) in 30 years; 45 percent more pressure on our freight systems; 65 percent more trucks on the roads. So we’re going to have to build more infrastructure.”
Since the 1950s, Congress has been directing about 90 percent of surface transportation funding to the states. Foxx related that the chief architect of the national highway program at its start, Thomas McDonald, commissioner of the Bureau of Public Roads, said that “his goal was to get farmers out of the mud” and on roads they could use to get products to market. But, in the process of building a national highway system, a lot of communities were severed or isolated because of massive highway structures, Foxx said.
For decades, Congress’ allocation of transportation dollars has been 80 percent for road and bridge projects and about 20 percent for transit systems, he noted, and that formula hasn’t been seriously reconsidered when long-term national transportation bills are passed.
In the future, transportation planning must focus more on how new highway, rail, airport and other infrastructure improvements will expand opportunities and create jobs for people in areas they are built, Foxx said. Transportation projects “should be not just place-getting, but place-making. I think that we would actually see much better outcomes if we gave local governments the ability to move [more] transportation dollars,” Foxx added, in part because “local communities have to live with their decisions and they have to talk with each other.”
“Ninety-eight percent of all surface transportation expenditures are made at the state and local level,” but state governments direct most decisions currently, he said. Foxx’s speech was very oriented to urban transportation, but he said making smart local transportation system decisions is especially needed in rural America, because “the costs of transportation for families . . . are humongous. If you’re in rural America, almost by definition, you have to own a car or be in a place that has really good rural transit.”
Jessica Monahan, transportation legislation expert for the National Association of Counties, notes that the 2015 transportation funding bill did nudge up the share of the Surface Transportation Program dollars that states are to assign to projects by counties, cities and other local entities. It increases from 50 percent to 51 percent this year, and to 55 percent in 2020.
Yet Monahan agrees with Foxx that much more localized project decision making is necessary.
“Counties own 45 percent of the nation’s road miles on their own, including part of the national highways system,” she points out. “Then add cities, townships and villages to that and they own 78 percent, which includes 43 percent of the federal highways.” So, local governments will gain from the gradual shift in sub-allocation, “but more is needed,” she said.
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