The subject of the first formal hearing of the full House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee (T & I) under the leadership of its new chair, Congressman Bill Shuster of Pennsylvania (held on February 13, 2013), was the federal role in transportation. In addressing this question, T & I considered an issue that has been explored, since the beginning of the Republic.
Recently, the Bipartisan Policy Center’s National Transportation Policy Project (NTPP) released a report of the proceedings of a workshop it organized in late 2011 on this subject, Strategies for Defining the Core Federal Role in Surface Transportation. The report of this workshop’s proceedings included a background historical study of the federal role in transportation by John Fischer, formerly of the Congressional Research Service.
In July 2012 a new surface transportation authorization bill, MAP-21, was enacted. While this legislation took some important steps, in implementing proposals that NTPP has advocated for the past few years for a more performance-driven and accountable national program, the new act did not address the issues of long-term funding sustainability for surface transportation, nor did it define core federal responsibilities in this area with any greater precision. Absent more focused purposes or defined objectives, it will be difficult to engender broad public or Congressional support for adequate and sustainable funding for federal surface transportation programs, and federal legislation in this area for the next several years is likely to be characterized by short-term extensions and stagnant, if not declining, revenue sources.
As John Fischer’s background paper pointed out, the federal government’s historic role in transportation derives from Congress’ power to regulate interstate commerce and to establish post roads. These Constitutional provisions were the bases for federal engagement in the “internal improvements” of the 19th Century, in the construction of national roads, canals, railroads, airports, and highways, and in the regulation (and then the de-regulation) of the rail, trucking, and aviation industries.
Most acknowledge, however, that the federal surface transportation program has not had focused purposes or defined objectives, since the completion of the Interstate Highway System. This has given rise to calls for “devolution” of the federal surface transportation program (that is, the withdrawal of the federal government from this area of policy and funding) or, at least, for greater discretion by state and local governments, in designing and implementing the transportation projects for which federal funds would be used.
This debate continues, however, although now in the context of serious federal fiscal constraints. These circumstances add new urgency to the on-going historic discussion about the core federal interest in surface transportation that was addressed by the NTPP workshop and report. While NTPP’s workshop on the federal role in surface transportation and the resulting report of its proceedings reached no definitive conclusions, they established a framework for this discussion and highlighted the fact that a resolution of the intertwined issues of the scope and character of the national interest in transportation and of sustained funding to support that interest are likely to be resolved only in the context of addressing the nation’s broader fiscal issues.
To that end, Congress and the administration will need to size federal surface transportation programs to fit available resources, and scarce federal resources will have to be allocated to, and focused on, those projects and activities at the state and local levels that reflect clearly defined national goals and purposes. The work of BPC and NTPP on these subjects is likely to remain relevant to these on-going and important policy debates.”