Congress Takes a First Step Towards Reshaping Transportation Policy

Could Washington’s long, unhealthy love affair with the automobile be coming to an end? An encouraging sign of change came today from two powerful Democratic senators who released a proposal that sets out progressive goals for the upcoming federal transportation bill.

R000361.jpgSenate Commerce Committee Chairman Jay Rockefeller (D-WV) (Photo by Washington Post)

Today’s proposal, sponsored by Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Jay Rockefeller (WV) and Sen. Frank Lautenberg (NJ), is what’s known on Capitol Hill as a "marker" — a set of principles intended to help guide the drafting of major legislation. The Rockefeller-Lautenberg marker, which got some early love from the Washington Post, states that the next federal transportation bill should accomplish the following:

  • Reduce national per-capita motor vehicle miles traveled on an annual basis;
  • Cut national motor vehicle-related fatalities in half by 2030;
  • Cut national surface transportation-generated carbon emissions by 40 percent by 2030;
  • Reduce surface transportation delays per capita on an annual basis; 
  • Get 20 percent more critical surface-transportation assets into a state of good repair by 2030;
  • Increase the total usage of public transit, intercity passenger rail and non-motorized transport on an annual basis.

The question of how to monitor and enforce these targets remain unanswered. (And the last target risks looking behind the times, given that transit use is already increasing each year.) But the very fact that Rockefeller and Lautenberg have laid out their priorities is a good thing, given that there may not be the political will to pass a federal transportation bill at all. The more lawmakers talking about reducing emissions and auto use, the better.

4 thoughts on Congress Takes a First Step Towards Reshaping Transportation Policy

  1. Obviously the question this raises is why are these guys putting out a bill instead of the Senate committees whose job it is? Senators Boxer and Dodd are the chairs. This seems to reinforce the Streetsblog critique from a week or so ago of Environment Chair Boxer who is reportedly going nowhere fast on transportation and climate.

  2. Shenp:

    Boxer’s “leadership” is indeed something to question at this point, but it’s only fair to note that control over transportation (especially transit) funding and policy is much more diffused in the Senate than in the House.

    Whereas in the House nearly everything runs through the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, in the Senate the Commerce, Banking and Environment & Public Works committees all have jurisdication over various aspects of transportation funding and policy.


  3. It would be a mark of significant progress if the goal were to increase per capita transit usage, rather than simply to increase transit usage.

    Since the passage of the Urban Mass Transit Act of 1972, which first established Federal funding for public transit spurred the creation in most major US cities of Public Transit Authorities with dedicated tax bases, we have seen a steady increase in transit ridership increasing in absolute terms, but a steady decrease relative to population, at least until last year, when the spike in gas prices suddenly made transit systems “competitive”.

    Note that the formula used to apportion Federal transit monies provides negligible incentive to increase ridership. Rather the formula is “vendor friendly”, providing incentives to provide service, either bus or fixed guideway, regardless of whether those services actually attract ridership. (For the formula, see

    There is no incentive whatsoever to provide van pools, in spite of the fact that van pools exhibit both the lowest cost per passenger mile and the lowest CO2 emissions per passenger mile of any mode. (Of course if the Federal govt promoted van pooling, Detroit would have to manufacture a whole lot of vans.)

    If Congress should ever get serious about global warming, we should expect to see the funding formula adjusted to provide for a far larger “incentive tier” across all modes.

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