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Vol. 14, No. 3 - May/June 2003

A First Look at the Administration's Reauthorization Proposal
A draft of the long awaited Administration surface transportation program reauthorization proposal , the "Safe and Flexible Transportation Efficiency Act of 2003" (SAFETEA), has been received with a mixture of praise and disappointment. The proposed funding levels for highways and transit are substantially lower than those advocated by the major interest groups and recommended by congressional transportation leaders. However, the Administration's draft contains a number of innovative proposals that, if enacted, promise to strengthen and enhance the federal surface transportation program. Some highlights follow.

It's Time to Take a Fresh Look at Highway Tolls - Commentary
Reaching the six-year reauthorization goal of $375 billion advocated by the congressional transportation leaders would require an ambitious strategy. The most obvious approach would be to seek an increase in the motor fuel taxes, as advocated by some transportation interests. Each additional penny would generate approximately $1.9 billion per year. However, the Administration and congressional leaders appear to have ruled out this option.

The largest unexplored revenue potential lies in a greater use of highway tolls. Admittedly, charging people for using roads they think they already have paid for is a losing strategy. However, if motorists received something of value in return, and if the extra revenue were dedicated to relieving traffic congestion, the public might take a more positive view of tolls. That is the underlying premise of several initiatives currently under consideration as part of the reauthorization process.

Charging for access to highway facilities that offer a higher level of service in the form of faster, more reliable travel, is an idea whose time, we believe, is coming. Not only would tolls provide badly needed revenue to supplement existing gasoline tax receipts, but toll-paying motorists and businesses for whom reaching a destination or delivering merchandise on time is of critical importance could have "travel insurance" in the form of a congestion-free trip. Other users would also gain because regular lanes would become less congested as some of the traffic switched to the toll lanes. Experience from California's HOT lanes suggests that large numbers of motorists of all income levels would be willing to pay to use congestion-free toll lanes as travel on metropolitan highways becomes increasingly slower and more unpredictable. By giving States authority to experiment with new pricing approaches, tolls could be introduced flexibly where they make sense and are politically viable.

In the upcoming surface transportation reauthorization, Congress will have an opportunity to make this vision a reality. At a time when the need for transportation capital investment greatly exceeds traditional sources of funding, a wider use of tolls would give America's metropolitan areas congestion relief without the need to raise gasoline taxes. (Full text)

Increasing Reliance on the Automobile Documented in the Latest Survey
New data from the 2001 Nationwide Household Transportation Survey (NHTS), released in January 2003, confirms the overwhelming dominance of the private car as a mode of personal transportation in America. Auto ownership is now almost universal, with 91.7 percent of American households owning at least one car, and 58.5 percent of households owning two or more vehicles. The car has become a virtual necessity for every segment of the population, including the poor, minorities, and the elderly, reports Prof. John Pucher of Rutgers University in the first detailed analysis of the 2001 NHTS data.

The "Smart Growth" Debate Continues
The debate about managing metropolitan growth shows no sign of subsiding. After years of listening to anti-sprawl rhetoric, critics of "smart growth" have passed on the offensive. At a recent Washington conference "Preserving the American Dream" organized by Randal O'Toole of the Oregon-based Thoreau Institute, a diverse group of conservatives and libertarians heard speakers lambast "smart growth" as a doctrine that promotes "dense urban development, restrictions on rural development, ineffective and expensive rail transit, and barriers to auto driving." Conference participants discussed ways of countering the "smart growth" polemic with their own brand of rhetoric, centered on promoting "the American dream" of mobility, affordable housing and protection of property rights. Highlighting the conference was a debate between the well-known "smart growth" critic Wendell Cox and the celebrated architect Andres Duany, founder of New Urbanism. As columnist Neal Peirce observed in reporting on the conference, the debate revealed a wealth of facts and assertions that the smart growth camp would do well to take seriously. (Full text)

Intercity High Speed Rail Service Abroad
The debate about the future of Amtrak once again throws a spotlight on the success of high-speed rail transportation abroad. Train travel across Europe is getting faster, more comfortable and more convenient thanks to a dramatic expansion of the region's high-speed rail network. As the Continent improves its high-speed train service, more and more business travelers are switching from planes to trains. Part of the reason for intercity rail's popularity in Europe (besides its high speed - more than twice the speed of Amtrak's pride and joy, the Acela Express) is its airport-rail interconnections. Passengers can transfer near-effortlessly at international airports from planes to local and high speed intercity trains which take them directly to their ultimate city center destination without the tedious airport-to-city transfers. At a February joint hearing of the House Subcommittees on Aviation and Rail, European and US experts expounded on the benefits of intermodal air-rail connections and how a high-speed rail system could help alleviate the nation's growing congestion problems.

 



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