Streetsblog Capitol Hill Q&A: Four Questions For Rob Puentes

America's transportation and infrastructure policies affect literally everyone who moves from place to place in the country, but often they are under-discussed and over-simplified by the mainstream media. To help broaden the debate, Streetsblog Capitol Hill is kicking off a new Q&A series called "The Four Questions."

puentesr_portrait.jpgRobert Puentes, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution's Metropolitan Policy Program (Photo: Brookings)

The goal is simple: Every week, a different person will weigh in on the same four queries about the future of the nation's built environment. The questions will remain the same, in order to provoke a thoughtful exchange of views on the biggest challenges facing transportation policymakers -- but the range of participants will be limitless.

Our guest for the inaugural Four Questions is Robert Puentes, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution's Metropolitan Policy Program (MPP) and a prolific analyst of growth and development issues. (Check out more from the MPP at its blog, The Avenue.)

Any suggestions for future participants in The Four Questions? Let us know in the comments.

1. Transportation planning -- the evaluation and construction of transit, road, and bridge projects -- is often considered primarily a state and local issue. What specific type of role should the federal government have in the mix?

We've actually proposed a three-pronged strategy for our national transportation program.

First, the federal government should lead in those areas where there are clear demands for national uniformity, or else to match the scale and geographic reach of certain problems. We must define, design, and embrace a new, unified vision for transportation policy. Its focus should be on infrastructure investments that support the competitiveness and environmental sustainability of the nation rather than on funding individual states or spending on singular needs.

The federal government should create a National Infrastructure Bank (NIB) able to select and finance large, multi-modal and multi-jurisdictional infrastructure projects on a merit basis. The NIB would be the window through which states, groups of states, and metropolitan areas would request financing or grants for a range of infrastructure projects -- from road and rails to ports and pipes. The federal government would provide initial capital that NIB would use to issue bonds. The Treasury would pay the interest on the bonds and it would act as a lender of last resort for the principal of the NIB loans. The proceeds from the bonds would be used to finance major projects proposed by public entities (states, municipalities, agencies).

Yet while there are clearly areas of physical infrastructure development where the federal government needs to lead, Washington also needs to put itself squarely in the service of state, local, and business leaders whose knack for solving problems has always driven this country forward.

The current federal system compels states and metro areas to apply for resources from multiple agencies and abide by the disparate, often conflicting rules of dozens of  programs. A more sensible system would place metro areas in the lead by challenging Washington to align federal investments with locally driven "metropolitan business plans" that lay out regional growth strategies and link local steering to rigorous performance measurements.

But beyond leading in some areas and empowering regions in others, the federal government needs to pursue a frank and rigorous debate about how to make better investment decisions. To begin with, the nation needs to develop evidence-based programs structured around broad national goals; it should be up to the federal transportation partners on the state and metro level to demonstrate how they will meet or exceed those goals. There is, after all, substantial federal precedent for such national accountability in education and welfare policy. Why should infrastructure investments -- with their major implications for U.S. economic growth -- go without such discipline?

And yet, in order to commit to an evidence-based program, a major overhaul is needed in how the nation collects, assembles, and provides data and information. And so the U.S. needs a world-class data and information system ("InfraStat") that is powerful, comprehensive, and accessible to the general public. From proper measurement, in short, will come performance -- and innovation.

2. As the gas tax loses some of its value in an era of more fuel-efficient vehicles, should it be increased or abandoned in favor of a new system of transportation financing? Or should both options be in play?

Just as transportation is not an end in and of itself, neither is increasing funding the primary solution to the nation's transportation problems. However, because of the short term conundrum of the federal government obligating more federal money for transportation than it has to spend and the disdain for the annual rescissions, many are calling for the next Congress and the new President to increase the federal gas tax. This puts the cart before the horse.

Simply put: we should not continue to pour more money into a dysfunctional system before serious attempts at significant policy reform. In other words, the federal transportation program is not just broke; it is broken. The funding debate needs to shift from spending more and more taxpayer dollars on the same product to where, what, and how to spend that money better. So in addition to just focusing on increasing revenues for the existing program the nation deserves a real conversation about curbing the demand for transportation spending. It is impossible to start with a funding solution or what the optimal level of investment should be when there is no agreement about what the federal role should be, what problems we are trying to solve, or what questions we are trying to answer.

[Former deputy Transportation Secretary] Mort Downey has pointed out that no major federal transportation reform has ever occurred without a major increase in revenues. This should be another one of those times.

We need a clear articulation of the goals and objectives of the federal program, and the desired outcomes. The program should then be structured to get to those outcomes. At that time, all options toward reinvigorating transportation funding should be on the table to meet the transportation challenges of the future while also ensuring financial revenues will be available.

3. The lion's share of federal transportation funding is sent through state DOTs that then pass aid on to major cities. Do you think this approach allows urban, suburban, and rural needs to be fully met?

The intent established in the ISTEA legislation of 1991 to elevate the importance of metropolitan decision-making to better align with the geography of regional economies, commuting patterns, and social reality has largely been subverted. Federal transportation policy has only haltingly recognized metros' centrality to transportation outcomes, and continues to assign states the primary role in transportation planning and programming.

Left to their own devices, most states have not embraced the intent of federal law and have not devolved sufficient powers and responsibilities to their metropolitan areas. They remain the principal decision-makers on transportation projects, including those within metropolitan areas. Many state DOTs still wield considerable formal and informal power and retain authority over substantial state transportation funds.

One positive step to enhance metropolitan decision making was the sub-allocation of funds directly to the regional and local government structures initiated by ISTEA. This helped strengthen metropolitan areas by changing the decision-making body for a portion of the overall funding, giving local officials the ability to spend federal transportation funds based on the unique needs of their region. However, the reality is that these funds still make up only a very small share of the overall funding pie. Taken together, federal law only gives metropolitan areas direct control over a small share of road and bridge funding under SAFETEA-LU. This misalignment has led to a dramatic shift in the way funds are raised in major metropolitan areas as these places are increasingly turning to voter-approved “local option taxes” to pay for certain metropolitan-scale projects.

Funding analyses in several states show how these biases harm metropolitan areas. These areas contribute significantly more in tax receipts than they receive in allocations from their state’s highway fund or through direct local transfers. In other words, although the donor/donee debate is alive and well on the national level between states, that same rationale -- logical or otherwise -- does not appear to have had anywhere near the same impact on spatial funding allocation within states.

4. Transportation contributes 30 percent of America's total CO2 emissions. Do you think a national cap-and-trade system should proportionally address this problem? If not, how should it be addressed?

To improve the environment, several states as well as the federal government have already articulated a desire to reduce transportation-related mobile source emissions in order to confirm with the transportation provisions of the Clean Air Act. We should go further and in addition to a net reduction in carbon dioxide emissions a reduced dependence on foreign oil is also critical (which is a clear benefit to the national economy). To that end, the federal program should support all three legs of the stool—vehicle efficiency, fuels standards and alternatives, as well as demand reduction strategies promoting efficient development patterns, telecommuting, and increasing travel options for people and goods. Related to the above question, a carbon tax is a good idea as an environmentally-motivated tax that could potentially generate revenues for a range of transportation choices such as transit.