Reform – Don’t Devolve – Federal Role in Transportation

Devolution or reform is a key federal transportation issue facing Congress.

Everyone wants to change the federal government’s role in transportation, and can be grouped into two categories: devolutionists and reformers. Fiscal pressures along with a lack of focus since the interstate highway system was completed drives both groups.

We’ve already looked at some of the devolutionist arguments.  Today we take a quick look at reform arguments from two prominent thinkers in transportation policy. These come from a May 2012 National Journal Q & A with a panel of experts who were asked several questions related to devolution.

Emil H. Frankel, Visiting Scholar at the Bipartisan Policy Center and former USDOT Assistant Secretary for Transportation Policy under President Bush, is no fan of devolution but does see room for improvement in federal transportation policy:

“There remains an important, if still inadequately defined, federal role in transportation. There are national goals and national purposes in transportation, and some projects are clearly national (to greater or lesser degrees) in scope and impact. . . .What this debate demonstrates, however, is the need to define national goals more precisely, to reform the institutions that plan and program capital investments in the transportation sector, and to focus on performance and outcomes. These reforms are more urgent than ever, in the context of shrinking resources and the need to invest wisely in the more beneficial programs and projects.

“And, if states and localities must do more, than Congress should remove the federal barriers to such state and local initiative and flexibility, such as the prohibition on tolling the Interstate Highway System, and should stop discouraging states and regions from attracting private capital to their transportation investment programs. Instead, the federal government should incentivize and reward those states and localities that do more to attract new sources of public and private investment capital to transportation. Federal funds and programs should, also, be used to leverage these new public and private sources, through the expansion of loan and credit enhancement programs, like TIFIA.” (Read Frankel’s entire essay.)

Robert Puentes of the Brookings Institute also is no fan of devolution or the current federal transportation system:

“So we should put aside the one-dimensional call for “Devolution, baby!” and recognize that a new partnership is already forming. What we need is a new type of federal partnership with state and metropolitan leaders, along with local governments and the private sector that’s in-step with current realities.

The late 20th century model in transportation retained the standard federalism pyramid structure: with the federal government providing resources that rain down from the state, to metropolitan, and ultimately the local level. A new 21st century compact should flip the pyramid by challenging our nation’s state and metropolitan leaders to develop deep and innovative visions to solve the most pressing transportation problems.” (Read Puentes’ complete essay.)

One of the best briefing papers I’ve seen on this issue is “Fix It First, Expand It Second, Reward It Third: A New Strategy for America’s Highways,” from Brookings’ Matthew Kahn and David Levinson. They propose reforming, not devolving, the federal program. And it’s a fairly realistic proposal as well.