Compared to other metropolitan areas in the U.S., the Twin Cities are quite advanced and innovative when it comes to transportation. We have been able to put together real transportation improvements for our area in recent years, from the Hiawatha Line to the I-35W fast lanes and the new commuter rail line opening soon. Although many challenges remain, as a region we are making tough choices and big improvements that will pay large dividends for ourselves and the nation.
Unfortunately, national transportation policy fails to recognize and reward that innovation as much as it should. The federal government does not currently measure how well transportation investments are improving traffic, safety, energy, or the environment. Funds are typically distributed with little to no analysis of their potential costs and benefits. There are insufficient funds to adequately maintain our infrastructure, and the results are not surprising: our transportation system is losing effectiveness and our nation is losing its global competitiveness.
Metropolitan regions like ours bear the brunt of misallocated investments. The Twin Cities and other metropolitan areas are the economic engines of the nation. Unfortunately, the current federal program structure restricts funds from being used in ways that can best advance regional and national goals, and it fails to encourage adequate planning on a metropolitan or regional scale. This makes it more challenging for metropolitan regions to use federal money to solve their transportation problems.
Recognizing the urgency of this issue, I have been helping to lead a bipartisan effort to develop more effective, accountable and performance-based federal transportation policy. The National Transportation Policy Project (NTPP) is a project of the Bipartisan Policy Center, a Washington, D.C.-based think-tank founded by former U.S. Senate Majority Leaders Howard Baker, Tom Daschle, Bob Dole, and George Mitchell. In June 2009, NTPP released its plan for reforming surface transportation policy entitled, Performance Driven: A New Vision for U.S. Transportation Policy. It proposes a simple, common-sense approach that will be challenging to execute: agree on objectives for federal spending, develop measures that evaluate whether those objectives are being advanced, and then adjust funding to reward performance with respect to those measures. This week/tomorrow/next week/today, the NTPP will host a transportation forum in Minneapolis to discuss its recommendations and the local and national impact of the next transportation bill.
Federal transportation legislation expired on September 30th and is now operating under extensions of current law until a new bill can be passed. We have an important opportunity during this period to begin reshaping federal law to provide states and metropolitan areas maximum flexibility in spending their federal transportation dollars, as long as they do so in a way that advances national goals. We propose that national goals be shaped around economic growth, national connectivity, metropolitan accessibility, energy and climate, and safety. The new federal program should advance these goals, but not dictate how such goals are being advanced. States and localities should themselves determine whether they will contribute to national goals through greater investment in transit, alternative fuels, or drunken driving enforcement mechanisms.
The Twin Cities stand to benefit greatly, as does the nation, from a federal program that aims to maximize the returns on its transportation investments. Many of the most worthwhile national investments lie in regions like ours, where they can make a real difference economically and environmentally.
The best way we can effectively deal with the frustration we all experience every day is to begin reshaping the federal program. Now is the time to act. Congress is likely to extend current transportation law for some time while they craft a new bill, and in the interim, we must push for reform. In a performance-based transportation funding system, there will be winners and losers. Those who perform well will be winners; those who do not, the losers. Congress is unlikely to allow such a system unless they hear from their states and regions about just how important this issue is. I urge you to make your voices heard. In the Twin Cities, it could not be more important to our economic and environmental future.
Martin Sabo served as a Congressman from Minnesota’s fifth district from 1979 to 2007. He is currently Co-Chair of the Bipartisan Policy Center’s National Transportation Policy Project. The NTPP’s Twin Cities transportation forum will take place on Monday, November 23, 2009 at the University of Minnesota’s Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs Cowles Auditorium.