Earlier this month, the house passed another extension to SAFETEA-LU, the transportation reauthorization act. Many have supported the extension including the experts at Brookings and Transportation for America. However, many are yearning for more long-term reliability. Reauthorizing every few years does not grant the financial clout necessary to take on long-term projects; many stagnate or are never started.
Robert Puentes, Director of the Metropolitan Policy Program at the Brookings Institute, proposes a new Transportation Law entitled SAFETEA TWO. D.C.Streetsblog summarizes his proposal as:
Model a new evaluation system for project proposals on TIGER, basing awards on merit and performance metrics. Add more transparency and specificity to the process. Make TIGER and the High Speed Rail program permanent.
Start transitioning from the gas tax to a more direct user fee system, like a Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMT) fee. Support “aggressive research” and development, especially to address concerns about privacy and administering a mileage fee. These issues will take time to iron out, and the next two years are a perfect time to do that work.
Establish a national policy for road pricing, including “standard tolling, variable pricing, high occupancy toll lanes, cordon and area-wide schemes.” Remove “archaic” restrictions on interstate tolling and utilitze state-of-the-art toll collection technologies.
“Help those that help themselves.” Offer federal incentives to encourage local self-financing, as when voters approve tax increases to pay for transit improvements.
Strengthen coordination among financing tools like TIFIA and private activity bonds to ease the process for applicants and embrace more complex and ambitious projects. A unified infrastructure financing system could also set the stage for the transition to a National Infrastructure Bank.
Expand the use of Public-Private Partnerships with a governmental office designed, not to make decisions about PPP projects, but to provide quality control and technical advice.
Work on reducing construction delays by instituting rewards for on-time project delivery and forgoing unnecessary environmental reviews (but keeping the necessary ones).
Allow greater use of federal funds for rail maintenance to address concerns like those expressed by anti-rail politicians in Ohio and Wisconsin about state financial burdens.
Cut some “legacy” programs, like the half-billion-dollar Appalachian Development Highway System Program, that are redundant with other federal agencies.
These steps are geared towards the current economic times. After the launch of SAFETEA TWO, Puentes suggests a six year reauthorization when the dust settles. Even without a long term reauthorization now, realignment must occur for projects to move forward with more fluidity and confidence.