At a recent Summit on Advancing a National Infrastructure Improvement Agenda, co-sponsored by the Bipartisan Policy Center, former Senator and NTPP Co-Chair Slade Gorton asked, “How do we assure that what we pay for is worth what we pay for it?”
The question the Senator posed is a logical one; it is one that we, as consumers, often have in our minds, as we make everyday purchases. We trust the free market to deliver us a fair price. However, this seemingly straightforward question continues to entangle the federal transportation policy debate. There have been a range of proposals put forward by those in the transportation policy reform community attempting to devise appropriate methods for demonstrating value for dollars invested.
Senator Gorton challenged a well-informed audience during this event to more explicitly consider possible solutions to this investment question. As the allocation of federal resources faces mounting scrutiny from lawmakers and the American public alike, the transportation sector must be able to demonstrate investments that are targeted and able to generate beneficial returns. The Senator reiterated that, without consensus around how to most accurately quantify the value of investments, the transportation industry will not be able to secure adequate funds to meet nation’s transportation needs.
During his remarks, Senator Gorton offered that the solution to this problem may in fact lie in our ability to “get back to basics.” To the rudimentary ear this comment, posed in the context of a discussion about the Highway Trust Fund, could be interpreted as suggesting that the federal government’s role in the transportation sector should be limited to highway expenditures or that the program should be further siloed with each user group paying for the mode it uses. However, such a conclusion would not be an accurate reflection of Senator Gorton’s theme.
A return to basics, as outlined by NTPP and described by Senator Gorton, is about first setting a clear, focused vision of the national transportation system, and of the federal role and responsibilities for investing in that system. This vision may have been quite obvious in the late 1950s, when the Highway Trust Fund was established as the mechanism for financing the Interstate Highway program. However, today’s vision is quite different. Second, it is about being clear about what we aim to achieve and being able to transparently measure the results of investments over the lifecycle of a project. Finally it is about ensuring that the highest value for investment is achieved and that federal dollars are used for investments that generate long-term returns.
The BPC’s vision for the federal surface transportation system is one where the federal role in transportation is to support investments that are in the national interest, delivering results toward national goals. More specifically, NTPP advocates that funding for the national system be allocated on a mode-neutral basis, delivering a national transportation system that is not driven by modal interests, but rather is flexible, targeting resources toward investments that deliver national economic growth, energy security and environmental protection, as well as safety benefits.
NTPP recommends devising performance metrics toward which all investments are held accountable. In this context, data and information is collected and modeled to demonstrate with some consistency across states and jurisdictions what federal dollars are actually achieving. An outcome-driven planning process is a central to ensuring the success of this reform. Planning should allow multiple programmatic investment choices to be considered and measured against one another.
Transitioning to a performance-driven federal transportation system, as framed by NTPP will help ensure that the investments we pay for are worth what we pay for them. There are reforms that can be enacted in legislation today that would enable the federal government to invest resources in a more targeted way, in projects that are in the national interest. Though the actual results of investments made today may only be realized over the lifecycle of an investment, beginning this work will help secure support from the American people in a way that encourages a future federal role in transportation. As Senator Gorton stated in his remarks to the Summit audience, the better able we are to “define and defend transportation programs…the more likely we are to find the resources we need to carry them out.”