Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Misses an Opportunity for Reform

Vehicles are seen on the highway during the morning rush hour in South Jordan, Utah, June 2015.

On Wednesday, June 24, the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works marked up S. 1647, the Developing a Reliable and Innovative Vision for the Economy, or DRIVE, Act, which would authorize federal highway programs for the next six years.

While the DRIVE Act would deliver desperately needed infrastructure funding, the bill represents a missed opportunity to provide balanced investment to expand safe, affordable, and efficient alternatives to driving. The bill therefore fails to address the greatest challenge to our transportation system: metropolitan congestion brought on by light-duty passenger vehicles. Providing robust transportation alternatives would improve access to opportunity; reduce roadway congestion; and, by extension, facilitate freight mobility and economic growth.

In many ways, the vote on Wednesday represents a victory for shortsighted conservative parsimony. This outcome was aided by exhaustion brought on by the need for funding stability on the part of members of Congress, state departments of transportation, and organizations committed to reform. For years, Republicans in the House and Senate have repeatedly dismissed attempts to raise the revenues needed to fund long-term, transformative transportation investments. As a result, the Highway Trust Fund has faced the rolling threat of insolvency. By holding transportation hostage, congressional Republicans have pushed many stakeholders to relent on reform in favor of some measure of funding stability.

Let’s start with freight. The transportation conversation in Washington is dominated by the concerns of the freight industry. While company and association representatives often grumble that “freight doesn’t vote,” the industry is highly effective at setting the policy agenda. The freight industry has spent years pushing for the creation of a freight program—essentially, funds dedicated to expanding mega highways under the auspices of improving freight mobility.

The most commonly stated rationale for a freight program is population growth: The Bureau of the Census estimates that the U.S. population will grow by more than 100 million people over the next 50 years. The freight industry points out that truck freight will increase by 65 percent over the next 30 years, reaching more than 18 billion tons annually. In addition, international cargo shipments are projected to grow by 3.4 percent annually over the same period. Trucks are the most common way to move freight from ports to inland destinations.

This growth will mean even worse highway congestion, making it increasingly difficult—if not impossible—to move the commodities and finished goods that allow our economy to function. Therefore, the freight industry argues, Congress should set aside funding for highway expansion on critical freight corridors—a loose concept that includes most principal arterial highways.

At first blush, these statistics appear to paint a compelling case for a dedicated freight program. However, the highway expansion funding proposed within the DRIVE Act would not address the true cause of congestion: light-duty vehicles. According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, for every one semi-trailer truck there are 76 light-duty vehicles—defined as cars, pickup trucks, and sport utility vehicles. Long-haul trucks account for just 6 percent of the approximately 3 trillion miles driven each year in the United States. If current per capita vehicle ownership trends continue, the United States will add approximately 80 million new vehicles over the next 50 years. Only 760,000 of these vehicles will be semi-trailer trucks.

The truth is that the United States does not have a freight problem; it has a car problem. And highways built under the banner of interstate freight mobility will quickly fill with cars making local trips and increasing congestion—essentially, they will have a metropolitan problem.

According to the Department of Transportation, 67 percent of all driving occurs within urban areas. This driving overwhelmingly serves local needs, as 73 percent of vehicle trips are less than 9 miles in distance. The worst urban congestion happens within established corridors that are surrounded by dense commercial and residential development. The cost of using extensive eminent domain for highway expansion in metropolitan centers is immense, and doing so generates huge amounts of political backlash. These factors lead to expansion at the periphery of metropolitan areas, but adding capacity at the periphery provides little to no relief for the congested urban core. The only real solution to congestion is to provide people with safe, affordable, and efficient public transportation options.

Conceptual flaws are not the only problem with the freight program. Rather than distributing funds on a competitive basis, the DRIVE Act would allocate more than $2 billion per year through a formula that provides each state with a share equivalent to its overall share of federal highway funds. In other words, the freight program would provide each state with funds regardless of need or the potential return on investment. As a result, states such as California, Texas, and Florida, which handle a disproportionately large volume of freight and international cargo traffic, would receive far less funding than an objective assessment of need would produce.

Overall, 95 percent of surface transportation funds are distributed by formula. States often struggle to complete major projects due to this funding model: Big-ticket items soak up an extremely large share of a state’s formula allocation, displacing hundreds of smaller projects over several years. To address this problem, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, or ARRA, created the Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery, or TIGER, program, which provides transportation funding on a competitive basis regardless of mode.

By remaining mode neutral, the TIGER program has been able to direct limited resources more efficiently. The program has been incredibly successful, with demand far outpacing available funds. Since 2009, the Department of Transportation has received more than 6,000 applications totaling $124 billion. On average, the TIGER program has provided $670 million annually—a good start, but more is needed.

The DRIVE Act seeks to replace the TIGER program with another program—Assistance for Major Projects, or AMP. Unfortunately, the AMP program misses the mark in several ways when it comes to supporting projects of regional or national significance. First, the AMP program would place strict caps on funding by transportation mode. Specifically, the bill would require that a minimum of 80 percent of funds go to highway projects, with a maximum of 20 percent allocated to public transportation projects. Second, the AMP program would not allow funds to support freight and passenger rail projects or port access projects, which are permitted under the TIGER program.

Third, the AMP program would replace a successful and objective project selection process—run through the Department of Transportation—with one driven by political geography. Under the DRIVE Act, the Department of Transportation would be required to send the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee and the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee a list of potential projects narrowed down from a larger applicant pool. From this list, the two committees would make project selections and then pass a joint resolution stating the chosen projects and a grant amount for each. While the AMP program would allow for transit projects, the joint resolution process would exclude the Senate Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs Committee, which has jurisdiction over the Federal Transit Administration and transit funding. Finally, the bill would authorize an average of only $400 million per year for the AMP program—a 40 percent reduction in funding compared with the already oversubscribed TIGER program.

Overall, the AMP program would move away from the mode-neutral, balanced investment approach of the TIGER program in favor of a new program with a politicized selection process, less funding, and modal mandates that favor highways as the solution to nearly every transportation challenge.

At 270 pages, the DRIVE Act contains more policy changes than can be covered in one column. But the freight and AMP program provisions demonstrate the degree to which this legislation misses a key opportunity for reform. The transportation challenges facing the United States cannot be solved with a policy approach that looks to mega-highway expansion as the answer no matter what the question.

Author’s note: Vehicle statistics are based on the author’s calculations from Bureau of the Census and Bureau of Transportation Statistics data.

Kevin DeGood is the Director of Infrastructure Policy at the Center for American Progress.