How America moves its people and goods in an efficient, effective, and in a secure and environmentally friendly way, will have at least as great of an effect as any other major policy decisions that the current Administration and Congress make. But, woefully, transportation isn’t really the stuff of eye-catching headlines and cocktail party chatter. That might be why, except among a small group of policy wonks, one of the most comprehensive calls for a new way of doing transportation business went largely unnoticed when it was released one month ago in Washington, D.C.
On June 9, the Washington, D.C.-based Bipartisan Policy Center released, “Performance Driven: A New Vision for U.S. Transportation Policy,” which calls for dramatic shifts in the formulation of federal transportation policy, including, for the first time, linking funding to performance. (Discovery Institute’s Cascadia Center will co-host an event in Seattle in August with the Bipartisan Policy Center, INRIX and local governments to unveil the report here in the Northwest.)
The Bipartisan Policy Center was founded in 2007 by a group of former U.S. Senate Majority Leaders – Howard Baker, Tom Daschle, Bob Dole and George Mitchell. Former U.S. Senator and Discovery Institute board member, Slade Gorton, sits on the Bipartisan Policy Center’s National Transportation Policy Project and helped draft the report, which begins: "National transportation policy has lost direction and a clear sense of purpose, threatening substantial costs to our collective prosperity, security, environment, and quality of life. We are recommending bold and comprehensive reform founded on a relatively simple proposition: U.S. transportation policy needs to be more performance-driven, more directly linked to a set of clearly articulated goals, and more accountable for results."
The report turns conventional transportation planning on its head through its recommendation of matching goals to measurements (or metrics), the lack of which, according to the report, has been a system with “an emphasis on revenue sharing and process, rather than results.” The report’s authors, which outline five goals for federal transportation planners (economic growth; national connectivity; metropolitan accessibility; energy security and environmental protection; and, safety) say “a performance-driven approach and introducing accountability will challenge entrenched interests and require government institutions at all levels to change longstanding practices and ways of doing business.”
As with most federal behemoths, transportation programs at the federal level have, to put it kindly, grown unwieldy since the last major overhaul of the system 50 years ago. The Bipartisan Policy Center’s report recommends streamlining the divergent roles through an ambitious reorganization, “from approximately 108 programs to six.”
Although funding for the current highway bill is set to expire at the end of this fiscal year (September 30), with health care, climate change and other issues on the national docket, the conventional wisdom in Washington, D.C., is that there won’t be a major overhaul of transportation this year. As of right now, Congress will likely pass an 18-month extension of the current transportation programs.
Congress’ stacked agenda might be bad news for those who want to see immediate reforms, but it might be good news for the eventual implementation of many of the ideas presented in the report,“Performance Driven: A New Vision for U.S. Transportation Policy.”
By their own admission, the authors themselves say they don’t “underestimate the difficulty of implementing this agenda” or the challenges the country faces. “We are equally convinced,” they write in the executive summary of the report, “that the effort to bring about fundamental changes in U.S. transportation policy…is in fact necessary….” For anyone concerned about traveling from point A to point B (and that includes all of us in most of our personal and professional interchanges), lets hope that the Administration and Congress finds the time to review and implement at least some of the report’s forward-looking recommendations—sooner rather than later.