What Is “Mode-Neutral” Funding?

Bus, car, pedicab
Different modes could be funded from the same pot, with allocations based on performance measures.

The beginning of 2008 has seen a flurry of debate — at least in wonkish circles — over federal transportation spending. In January, the bi-partisan Surface Transportation Commission released a report two years in the making, "Transportation for Tomorrow," which was promptly badmouthed by U.S. Transportation Secretary Mary Peters for a gas tax hike proposal and partially redacted by the Bush administration to remove a section advocating for public transportation. Just last week the White House proposed paying federal highway obligations by "borrowing" from a fund set aside for transit. With the federal highway bill up for re-authorization next year, huge sums of money are on the line, not to mention the direction of US transportation policy.

One of the new phrases getting tossed around in these discussions is "mode-neutral" funding, which entails allocating money based on pre-determined criteria and cost-benefit analysis, instead of earmarks for roads or transit. Here is FTA Administrator James Simpson (a Bush appointee and former MTA board member), addressing the American Public Transit Association last October:

“Don’t think mode, think people.”  That’s become our motto.

I believe that such
mode-neutral thinking is central to a new paradigm in transportation. 
I believe that we must stop thinking in terms of mode–no more highways
versus transit or bus versus rail.
Instead, we MUST think in terms of
people and focus on our customers.

And here is syndicated columnist Neal Peirce, endorsing the transportation commission’s report:

…the commission faced the necessity of a dramatic rise in the federal gas tax, to 40 cents a gallon, indexed to inflation. And it sought accountability by combining today’s 108 federal transportation funding lines (for transit, highways, railroads, etc.) into 10 goal-oriented programs such as “Congestion Relief,” “Energy Security” and “Saving Lives.” The system would be performance-driven, outcome-based, mode-neutral — a far call from today’s morass of earmarked transportation projects and billions flowing to states for still more highways.

So would mode-neutral transportation funding benefit a livable streets agenda? The short answer: "It depends."

The long answer goes back to the end of 2006, when mode-neutral funding first gained currency. It was a guiding principle of the Eddington Report, an exhaustive study of the UK transportation network released that December. The report got attention for proposing a national road pricing mechanism, but several core recommendations were less audacious, calling for maintenance and incremental improvements instead of big capital projects.

"’Fix it first’ comes out first," said transportation expert David Burwell, who answered my questions about mode-neutral funding in a phone interview last week.

That means expensive projects like Moynihan Station would probably have fewer federal dollars to count on, but less capital-intensive projects, like Bus Rapid Transit, may stand to gain. And a mode-neutral approach bodes poorly, as Peirce suggests, for costly road-widening projects that have no long-term impact on congestion.

In the end, much depends on the criteria used to evaluate performance. Hypothetically, a mode-neutral transportation agenda could set goals of reducing VMT and emissions, then dispense money to the most cost-effective means of achieving those outcomes.

For now, says Burwell, all the talk of mode-neutral funding in the US is moot, because "no one cares about performance; they care about earmarks."

"We don’t collect the data that would allow us to have an effective cost-benefit analysis," he added. "The only performance measure that US DOT asks state DOTs is, ‘Did you spend the money?’"

Photo: Marionzetta / Flickr

  • Channeling The Kunstler

    Nobody in Washington is willing to tell it to Americans straight: the days of cheap and easy motoring are over. Unless the federal government radically changes is funding priorities to effect better transit options and more compact communities, then the share of household income (and time) devoted to transportation is going to skyrocket.

  • Fix DC First

    Back in the early 1990’s the first ISTEA had a whole set of performance goals and objective criteria for measuring the cost and benefits of transportation projects — similar in effect to mode neutrality. As soon as it became clear what this meant to pork as usual a bipartisan army in congress stripped them out. Burwell was around for that.

  • mjr

    The STC report highlights the need to build and maintain citizen pressure on national elected officials to get transportation right. At the Rudin Center’s Presidential Candidate Forum (with respected campaign reps but alas, no candidates), it was less than crystal-clear that all the Democratic candidates had gotten the point of the report. Clinton’s rep denounced Congestion Pricing as a Bush-driven ruse, while Obama’s soft-pedaled the difference between the Commission’s and Secretary Peters’ position. Neither position reflects a deep understanding of the issues; here, as in planning generally, the devil is in the details.

  • vnm

    “mode neutral” sounds like a politically palatable way to tell the American people that they need to end their car-only ways of thinking.

    Last November, James Simpson stood on the floor of Grand Central Terminal and handed a check for $1.3 billion to Governor Spitzer and Lee Sander so they could build the Second Avenue Subway. This is a guy who knows multimodalism and values transit.

  • Not James Simpson

    This is a guy who knows the value of other peoples money.
    ———————————
    James Simpson stood on the floor of Grand Central Terminal and handed a check for $1.3 billion to Governor Spitzer and Lee Sander so they could build the Second Avenue Subway. This is a guy who knows multimodalism and values transit.

  • Larry Littlefield

    Mode neutral means since most people drive, other things are cut. It does not take into account that fact that most people drive due to past public investments in driving. A chicken and egg thing.

  • very interesting concept, hope it starts rollling..

    something I wrote recently

    “Many politicians seem to think there is a need to ‘balance’ the demands of the ‘cycling lobby’ and the ‘motoring lobby’ – though few cyclists would complain if there was spending on cycle infrastructure that ‘balanced’ the money that will be provided for a new Forth crossing! ”

    http://cyclingedinburgh.info/2008/02/10/spokes-delivers-strong-letter-to-council

  • Whether it is “mode-nuetral” funding or not, a central problem in transportation planning is the reliance on the standards developed by professional transportation engineers: they are entirely automobile-based measures.

    When it comes to a systematic system to measure the performance of our roadways, Transportation Engineers are really the only game in town.

    A better regime of roadway performance measurement needs to be developed, tested, standardized, and taught to transportation engineers and city planners.

    That better regime would likely include measures of: census demographics vs. pedestrian survey data; standardized liveability surveys (before and after) around various types of new roadway projects; comprehensive crash and incident statistics for roadways; survey of business income before and after roadway projects; and a few other things (like air and water quality and noise mesaurements).

  • Temp

    You guys are biting on jargon pretty heavily. The current federal program has plenty of pots of money that are “mode neutral” – many date to the early 1990s. The key is what state and local leaders want to do with the money

  • R Latham

    Inspite of wishful thinking and auto-bashing, most Americans do not wish to live in a 2 bedroom flat in center city and ride the bus. Opportunities for economic growth are in small towns and the suburban ring of major cities. This will continue to favor use of the automobile and trucks for freight delivery.

  • The wishful thinking is that Americans can have everything they wish for. Finiteness of resources (land, oil, capital) has other ideas. Northern Jersey is the most advanced product of auto-driven development, and you don’t find too many Americans (or even New Jerseyans) wishing for that.

  • Angus Grieve-Smith

    Inspite of wishful thinking and auto-bashing, most Americans do not wish to live in a 2 bedroom flat in center city and ride the bus.

    Do you have any public-opinion data to back that up, R?

  • BPBanfie

    Mode neutral does not bode well for transportation funding for the 75% of the road system in the US that is rural. There are small towns all over the US that are unable to receive funding to repair and update their transportation systems (i.e. roads) under the current system. Then to say the funding will be distributed on a basis that encourages “mode choice” is insanity. Small town America doesn’t have a “mode choice”. It is cars/roads or nothing. (Unless it is suggested that we go back to horse and carriage?)

  • urban taxpayer

    I believe that federal funds are for capital expenditures, not maintenance. The rural areas should be maintaining their systems out of local, state, and user fee sources. Reining in the federal funds should curtail expansion of these roads, which only encourages more sprawl at the expense of transit-oriented development. Certainly you don’t think rural areas should be building roads they can’t afford to maintain, saddling the rest of us with open-ended liabilities for development that is contrary to the public interest?

  • Angus Grieve-Smith

    Small town America doesn’t have a “mode choice”. It is cars/roads or nothing. (Unless it is suggested that we go back to horse and carriage?)

    That’s a false dichotomy (trichotomy?). I grew up in a small town that was full of people who didn’t drive. They walked to work and shopping, and took the bus to get to places out of town. This was in the ’70s, but it’s the way small towns were across the country before 1950, and it’s the way it ought to be after 2050.

  • urban taxpayer

    However, in fairness, buses and bicycles also use roads. Maybe only those roads which have regular bus routes or designated bike routes on them should be eligible for federal funding. That should spur more of both.

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