State DOTs Brazenly Request a Blank Check to Build More Highways

Want your state DOT to support safer, multi-modal local streets? You can dream, but don't dare tell them what to do. Photo:flickr

“This is a money and power grab.”

“It’s very disappointing and very AASHTO.”

That’s how some transportation reformers are describing the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials’ new recommendations for the next surface transportation bill. The current bill, MAP-21, expires in less than a year.

AASHTO’s proposal is “so mired in protective technical-speak that it’ll fail to inspire anyone outside of state DOT technical staff — which I guess just sees ‘more money’ and that’s all they care about,” vented Deron Lovaas of the Natural Resources Defense Council upon seeing the document.

AASHTO’s recommendations boil down to one thing: less local control and more power at the state level. They want to wrest control over transit funds from transit agencies. They want more “flexibility” on every front. They want less distribution of funds to officials at the city or regional level — a move Lovaas calls “regressive” since “more and more people, businesses and jobs are becoming centralized in metro areas.”

MAP-21’s one real achievement, a provision allowing some degree of local control over funds for biking and walking, gets targeted in AASHTO’s wish list. AASHTO complains that states aren’t eligible for this relatively tiny pot of money, and demand to get their hands in the cookie jar that’s closed to them.

What’s more, Lovaas noted, AASHTO boldly resists any form of accountability. The association insists that no additional performance measures be implemented until the new ones from MAP-21 can be amply tested out. And yet they want to go full throttle with their agenda to accelerate “project delivery” — basically making an end run around environmental and community scrutiny.

Indeed, AASHTO is positively allergic to performance measures. They want to make sure states aren’t required to fix infrastructure that’s in the worst condition first, though they don’t explain why any other approach would make any sense. Over and over again, they affirm their “steadfast opposition” to “using performance measures as the basis for apportioning or allocating federal funds among the States” — in other words, having any mechanism whatsoever to ensure that they don’t spend billions of dollars on wasteful projects.

Above all, AASHTO says over and over that “the implementation of MAP 21 [and any subsequent bill] should avoid any unnecessary administrative burdens or unnecessary restrictions on State flexibility.” Translation: Hand over a blank check. Nowhere does AASHTO say how it intends to improve the transportation system, meet national goals like greater safety or environmental sustainability, or be more accountable to the public. They don’t even bother to explain the expected outcomes of their recommendations. The list is nothing but “give us the money and go away,” in the words of David Burwell, transportation analyst at the Carnegie Endowment.

The document came out just days before a special Congressional panel on freight issued its recommendations. In it those recommendations, the panel notes that U.S. DOT is currently designating a National Freight Network, which will consist of 27,000 centerline miles of existing roadways, “with the option of expanding this limitation by no more than 3,000 additional centerline miles.” But AASHTO wants to go beyond that 3,000-mile cap. They don’t want Congress or U.S. DOT to determine how much more to build, though — they, of course, want that to be up to the states, like everything else. “This would allow states to ask for more federal money in the name of ‘key commerce corridors’ and ‘critical rural freight corridors,’” Burwell said, “both more excuses for adding more lane miles to the system at a time VMT is declining.”

Unbelievably, AASHTO also makes a grab for what’s historically been federal authority to determine whether projects conform with the Clean Air Act. While one state — California — has been awarded authority to do its own environmental reviews, that’s only because that state’s environmental regulations are more stringent than federal ones. The blanket request for all states to have the authority to regulate themselves on environmental protection is alarming.

Perhaps not surprisingly, AASHTO’s section on safety doesn’t breathe a word about people walking and biking. Instead, the states again ask for more “flexibility” to focus on safety when and where they want. Oh, and AASHTO says it’s too restrictive to ask states to implement graduated drivers licenses, even though all 50 states have some version of a GDL system.

AASHTO does have some good ideas. They want permission to remove from the National Highway System a lot of arterial roads that were automatically designated NHS under MAP-21. NHS designation means the road is treated as a highway, and can make it harder to install bike and pedestrian designs or traffic calming.

Another good recommendation is their suggestion to allow states to fund any non-NHS bridge on the federal-aid highway system under the National Highway Performance Program (NHPP) — an arcane-sounding request that would help free up Surface Transportation Program money, which is one of the pots of funds that’s most available to bike and pedestrian projects. The additional burden of non-NHS bridges in the STP program in MAP-21 threatened to squeeze out these other important projects.

They also want Congress to remove the cap on states using Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality money for transit operations — which has been limited to three or five years. But they also want to narrow the requirement that states spend CMAQ money on their intended purpose, saying that should only be required if states’ non-attainment of air quality goals is specifically the result of transportation activities.

But essentially, with this document the state DOTs are asking for money with no strings attached in the next go-round — and undoubtedly they’re hoping their message will be heard deep within the ranks of U.S. DOT, where they’re currently working out the details of MAP-21′s performance requirements. And why wouldn’t AASHTO have high hopes that their demands will be heard? Sen. Barbara Boxer has been clear that she looked to AASHTO for guidance every step of the way in crafting MAP-21, and indeed, one would think AASHTO had gotten everything it wanted out of that affair — if it didn’t now have a list of so many more demands.