Last week a bipartisan panel of transportation experts, co-chaired by two formed Secretaries of Transportation—Norman Y. Mineta and Samuel K. Skinner—released a report that warned that the United States’ current transportation system is woefully underfunded, which undermines its status in the global economy. The report, issued on behalf of over 80 transportation experts, continued to argue that unless Congress and a the public embrace innovation and increased spending, the United States will continue to lag further and further behind China, Russia, and European nations leading to “a steady erosion of the social and economic foundations for American prosperity in the long run.”

The report followed from a 2009 conference titled “Beyond Stimulus: Toward a New Transportation Agenda for America.” The conference, also co-chaired by Secretaries Mineta and Skinner, gathered to facilitate original and necessary thinking about the financing, governance, and management of the United States’ transportation infrastructure. The authors of the report point to the recent celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of the Interstate Highway System, an achievement that revolutionized the nation, as a stark contrast to the current state of the nation’s ability to support economic growth. Without a vital and fully functioning transportation system, moving goods—a necessary part of economic activity—cannot occur.

The authors argue that before the recession, bottlenecks in all transportation modes were beginning to compromise America’s global competitiveness. This problem has not be solved in the intervening years and can only hinder recovery efforts. However, these problems cannot be solved with traditional methods of transportation funding. While revenue from federal and state gas taxes mostly paid for the construction and expansion of the Interstate Highway System, new methods are required. To truly create an efficient, scalable, and state-of-the-art transportation system, a fundamental overhaul of America’s transportation policies and programs is needed.

In a Washington Post article, Secretary Skinner argued new funding for infrastructure should be looked at as “an investment, not an expense.”

The makes several recommendations for policies and programs to improve infrastructure:

  • Increasing the federal gas tax, which has remained at 18.3 cents per gallon since 1993 (revenues have decreased as fuel efficiency has increased).
  • Taxing Americans per mile they drive
  • Empower state and local governments with the authority to make more decisions
  • Continue the development of high-speed rail systems and better integrate them with freight rail
  • Expand alternative transportation policies rather than rely on highways alone for the transportation of people and goods
  • Encourage “livable communities” by encouraging good land-use practices that discourage single-occupant commuters. These “livable communities” would be conductive to walking and other forms of transportation, such as biking and public transportation, to reduce congestion and other traffic problems.

However, the report notes that good transportation policy does not have high priority in Congress or in local politics. The most recent authorization for the Department of Transportation’s surface transportation programs was signed into law two years late. Congress is currently a year and a half late in reauthorizing aviation programs. And efforts to move a new six-year federal transportation plan stalled recently after the previous one expired last year.

What do you think—for something so important to our everyday lives, why hasn’t transportation policy taken front and center in the political arena?

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