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Vol. 13, No. 6 - November/December 2002

The Reauthorization Campaign Shifts Gears
Last March, we cast a preliminary look at the emerging reauthorization debate and found the picture cloudy. As we approach the end of the year, the situation has become clearer. Stakeholder groups have firmed up their positions and made them public. Census 2000 has armed Congress with a wealth of new data on demographic trends and travel patterns, while the new US DOT Conditions and Performance Report provides well-documented estimates of the nation’s future transportation infrastructure needs. Both the House and Senate authorizing committees have completed a series of hearings on the state of the nation’s surface transportation program and the congressional staffs are reviewing the record and getting set to begin drafting the legislation. Meanwhile, the US DOT is in the final stages of formulating its own reauthorization proposal.

What follows is a new take on the state of affairs as the reauthorization campaign is about to enter a new phase. Our assessment draws on the published position statements and recommendations of stakeholder groups, supplemented by insights and information gleaned from various briefings, congressional testimony and personal communications with Congressional staffs, federal and state transportation officials, and representatives of Washington-based public interest groups and trade associations.

Expediting Environmental Reviews and Project Delivery
In a long-awaited action on September 19, the Bush Administration issued an Executive Order calling for expedited environmental reviews of high priority transportation infrastructure projects. At the same time, the U.S. Department of Transportation withdrew a proposed environmental rule issued in May 2000 by the previous administration. The rule had been strongly opposed by state departments of transportation and other transportation interests.

Environmental streamlining also is receiving attention on Capitol Hill. Legislation to expedite project delivery has been introduced in the House (H.R. 5455) and the Senate. Hearings in the House and Senate committees have produced much impassioned testimony for and against congressional action. It seems likely that Congress, after weighing the competing claims, will come out squarely on the side of accelerating project delivery, while paying respect to the need to protect the environment and preserve citizen involvement.

Mass Transit Debate Continues
New data released by the US Census Bureau has revived a simmering debate about the role of mass transit in contemporary America. The data show that over the past decade 39 of the nation’s 50 largest metropolitan areas experienced a decline in the share of commuters using public transit to get to work (see attached table). Of the 11 areas that saw an increase, the gains were modest (except for Las Vegas, where a new transit system led to a 100 percent increase in transit ridership). Nationwide, the share of commuters taking transit to work fell 10.6 percent, from 5.1 percent in 1990 to 4.6 percent in 2000. The decline occurred both in older transit-oriented cities such as Philadelphia and Boston, and in places like Atlanta and Dallas where new rail systems have been built. In 1990, there were five metropolitan areas where transit held more than a 10 percent share; by 2000, there were only two.

Federal Transit Administrator Jennifer Dorn, took note of transit’s declining market share in a speech before APTA’s Annual Meeting in Las Vegas. The increase in the number of transit riders in the late ‘90s, said Dorn, is telling only part of the story. “Transit’s overall market share has actually been declining since the 1970s... The hard reality is that, on any given weekday, less than five percent of America rides transit and less than two percent of all trips are made on transit... I think it is important to acknowledge and carefully analyze these trends... To put it bluntly, our first challenge is to help change America’s mind about transit. It’s not good enough to have transit viewed as a “poor second” to the personal automobile.”

The new Census data has given transit critics, such as the well-known analyst Wendell Cox, new ammunition to question the wisdom of spending massive amounts of money on new rail systems in the hope that they will attract new riders and relieve traffic congestion. Mr. Cox’s commentary follows.

The New Suburban Frontier
For many years, advocates of managed growth (or its contemporary sobriquet, “Smart Growth”) have exhorted Americans to turn their backs on suburban sprawl and embrace living at higher densities. But despite impassioned rhetoric, hardly anything has changed. Suburban America continues to develop at average densities that have changed little since Levittown. While a few “neo-traditional” communities, such as Kentlands and King Farm in Maryland, and Seaside and Celebration in Florida, have added cosmetic features that make them look more like traditional villages (sidewalks, front porches, ersatz “town centers” with Disney-like urban streetscapes), they are no more “self-contained,” or “auto-independent” than the neighboring subdivisions. Homes in Kentlands and King Farm are no closer to jobs and schools than elsewhere in Montgomery County and their vehicle ownership rates equal or exceed those in the surrounding developments. The neo-urban “villages” are simply small pockets of planned development, planted in the midst of spread-out suburbia. Indeed, Alex Marshall, author of “How Cities Work,” (University of Texas Press, 2001) calls them contemporary “Potemkin villages” - pretending to be something they are not. In a satirical social commentary, David Brooks describes the socio-demographic forces that are shaping these “Sprinkler Cities.”

The Condition and Performance of the Nation’s Highways
While the 2002 edition of the US DOT’s Conditions and Performance Report will not be released until later this year, Federal Highway Administrator Mary Peters shared some of the findings from the report when she testified on the State of America’s Highway Infrastructure before the transportation subcommittees of the House and Senate authorizing committees in late September. Administrator Peters reported that, while there have been significant improvements in the physical condition of the Nation’s highways and bridges since the enactment of TEA-21 in 1998, the operational performance of the highway system as measured by levels of congestion has continued to deteriorate in metropolitan areas of every size. She observed that the time has come to shift attention and resources from system preservation to system expansion in order to improve overall performance of the highway system. In a related article, David Hartgen argues that common national performance measures and standards are needed in order to ensure that the entire National Highway System is held to a uniform standard of performance.


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