“Highway people like highways, transit people like transit, rail people like rail,” Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said yesterday at the annual meeting of the Transportation Research Board. “But our transportation system should be greater than the sum of its parts.”
Foxx wasn’t the first to lament the atomization of the various modes at the federal level. Just this morning, in a hearing before the Senate Banking Committee, Federal Transit Administrator Peter Rogoff touted the agency’s efforts at “tearing away federal stovepipes” but said “coordination is still a problem at the federal level.”
Rogoff knows better than anyone that to some degree, those stovepipes are necessary — and that if they’re torn away completely, transit has the most to lose.
After all, just yesterday Rogoff moderated a panel at TRB comprised of eight of his predecessors at the FTA (and its precursor, the Urban Mass Transit Administration). And he asked them whether it made sense to consolidate the modal agencies — presumably not just highways, transit and rail but also aviation, pipelines, the St. Lawrence Seaway, and others.
“Is it time to do away with modal silos?” Rogoff asked.
“Every administration kicks around the idea of combining everything into one agency,” admitted Brian Clymer, who presided over the agency from 1989 to 1993.
The Department of Transportation has only been one, unified agency since 1967, when the various pre-existing modal agencies were brought under one roof. Before that, some were housed under separate cabinet departments like Commerce or Agriculture.
Maintaining separate agencies under one department is probably as much unity as is called for, the former administrators agreed. First of all, whenever you have such technical knowledge, “you’re always going to have some degree of specialization,” Clymer said — and there’s nothing wrong with that. The people who know the sweet spot for streetcar headways aren’t necessarily the foremost experts on warm-mix asphalt. But that doesn’t mean they can’t talk to each other — and it certainly doesn’t mean that planning should happen in isolation.