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InTransition Magazine : Transportation Planning, Practice & Progress

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Is a 'True Reauthorization on the Way?'

With New Federal Transportation Funding Bill Pending, Policy Expert Heartened by Range of Debate

By Karl Vilacoba

About Perspectives

  • Perspectives features interviews with professionals making news in the transportation world.

Stephen Van Beek, president and CEO

of the Eno Transportation Foundation.

Stephen Van Beek is the president and CEO of the Washington, D.C.-based Eno Transportation Foundation, a nonprofit with the mission of improving transportation policy and the industry’s leadership. Before joining Eno, Van Beek worked as an airline industry policy consultant, a high-ranking administrator in the U.S. Department of Transportation, a political science professor and a Congressional legislative assistant. Following his participation in a recent North Jersey Transportation Planning Authority symposium on transportation financing, Van Beek spoke with InTransition about where America’s policies are headed and how current economic realities are likely to shape them.

Q: What are the major challenges being faced in the new SAFETEA-LU reauthorization bill?

I think there are three major issues. One is simply the traditional political challenge—how do we get a majority of both houses and the administration to agree on a formula for reauthorization, and in particular, a multiyear formula. And that really involves numbers two and three.

Number two, I would say, is the piece that’s been the most publicized—the financial challenges involving the Highway Trust Fund and the implications that has for both highways and public transportation. And then third would be a policy architecture that actually determines how moneys are provided. With number three, there are a number of different challenges—namely, the climate, local air quality, congestion, the freight sector—that a lot of people believe our current set of policies don’t address effectively.

So the challenge is, how do we not just have a reauthorization where we continue our old plans, but have what people in Washington are referring to as a “true reauthorization,” where we really reconceptualize the way we make transportation policy. And any time in Washington when you create lots of winners and losers in a bill, number one becomes harder.

Q: What goals and national imperatives do you believe should be addressed through the next transportation funding bill?

First off, making it a sustainable bill so that we are not reliant on infusions of general fund support to keep the program going. I think all of us understand that we had deficit spending in order to try to kick-start the economy, but by the same token, there’s not going to be an unlimited supply of money as the economy recovers and policymakers devote more attention to the deficit.
Secondly, we really have to try to join together two of our big policy efforts, climate and transportation. Unfortunately, to this point, we really have treated those as distinct challenges rather than integrated challenges.

Thirdly is, how can we fund national projects? Those are projects that span jurisdictions, states, metropolitan planning organizations, transit properties. Projects in the U.S.—because of the way we give out our money—that span multiple jurisdictions have been underfunded and really given short shrift by the policy architecture. I think we need to have a better, robust set of discretionary programs to support projects of national and regional significance.

Q: How has the economic crisis impacted the transportation sector and what are its lessons for the future?

In some ways, it has helped the transportation network because it has reduced congestion. You may have seen USA Today articles with headlines like “Aviation Delays Are Down.” Well, aviation delays are down because traffic has fallen off the table. But what you really want is a transportation network that supports a growing economy, not a retrenching one.

Climate and transportation policymaking

efforts should be more closely integrated,

according to Van Beek, speaking above at

a North Jersey Transportation Planning

Authority roundtable in June.

One of the things that has occurred with the recession has been a reduction in vehicle miles traveled on the surface side, and since our national surface transportation network is funded by fuel taxes, it has reduced the amount of money available for transportation projects. So when the economy snaps back, one of the challenges is going to be the re-emergence of congestion and the fact that we’ve under-invested, because of the poor economy, in transportation. That’s why right now, because we’re on the cusp of economic recovery, it’s so important that policymakers put in place this new surface transportation policy that will have projects ready and being built, or else we’re going to be in very difficult shape.

When you’re spending a lot of money on economic recovery that can have a benefit for the transportation system, and it hopefully can get the American people to see what the value of investing in transportation infrastructure is—creating jobs, creating additional economic activity and actually being part of bringing the economy back. I think it’s notable that, although some of the components of the stimulus program have been criticized, very few people have criticized the highway, transit, rail, airport, port and intermodal projects that have been part of the stimulus program. And if one is an optimist, one looks at this experience and says maybe this sets the stage to make an adult argument to the American people that they have to pay—in fuel taxes and maybe a little more in their airline tickets—in order to support that transportation infrastructure to help congestion, to help air quality.

Q: Are user fees an effective means to influence travel behaviors? If so, in what ways?

Let’s back up on that question a little bit and say, what do we consider as a user fee? The user fee, as distinct from today’s gas tax, for example, would include the external effects of using that transportation infrastructure in the price of what you and I would buy at the pump, or in the price of what you and I would buy for a ship itinerary or an airline ticket. It factors in issues and problems like congestion, air quality, accidents and other external effects of transportation, and it gets people to make choices in the market that are more consistent with all the costs that we impose as we use the transportation system.

That’s most evident at rush hour when we’re driving on the road. That road may be free, but because it’s free, it creates a degree of congestion that costs us time, money, fuel, air quality. If you priced that accordingly, it would create the incentive for more public transit in congested areas. It would create a more balanced transportation system, something that we see in only a few metropolitan areas. And even where we see [balanced transportation systems], as in the New York metropolitan area and Newark area, they’re often very congested on key arteries. User fees offer the promise of raising more money for transportation infrastructure and providing a better balance in the way we use transportation.

Q: Are the transportation investments in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act making an impact on the economy?

While some aspects of the federal stimulus package

have been the subject of tough criticisms, the public

has been generally supportive of its transportation

projects, according to Van Beek.

Yes. Unfortunately, what I think has happened to some degree is that people are saying the transportation investments are equivalent to the entire $780 billion stimulus program. Transportation investments are $50 billion of $780 billion, so let’s look at the effect that they have. Secondly, there is a timing issue. To this point, we’ve spent somewhere between 15-20 percent of the monies out of that $50 billion transportation investment. We have an economy that’s on the order of $14 trillion dollars. It’s going to have a marginal effect on the entirety of the economy. We should assess that effect, but we shouldn’t
think that the transportation investments are going to have a dramatic impact upon the overall economy.

So let’s look at what works right, what didn’t work, ways in which different agencies were perhaps able to get the money on the street quicker than other agencies. My guess is what we’re going to find is that there’s still improvements in the project delivery process and the planning process that can be made to make not just the stimulus monies be delivered quickly, but the regular apportionments to transit agencies and state DOTs for highway projects.

Q: At a recent symposium, you discussed the importance of getting away from what you called “faith-based transportation policy.” Can you elaborate on that?

I really was reacting to some people who are in favor of “green” transportation–by that I mean transit advocates, high-speed rail, hybrid and electric cars. I think all of those are likely to be alternatives that help us meet our climate goals. But my point was, we can’t in any one local or regional situation assume that high-speed rail might be better than aviation, or transit might be better than highway. And that’s what I referred to as a “faith-based” analysis.

Instead, what we have to do is look at an alternatives analysis that really looks at the entire life cycle of project development and asks whether high-speed rail in any one situation is going to be better than aviation, and, in fact, what are all the other things with transportation that we have to do to make high-speed rail successful. And here I would point to the need, if we have a high-speed rail system, to better integrate it with a local transit system and our system of airports. In a lot of places in Europe, you see it that way. What I fear, as we really zoom in on high-speed rail here, is that we’ll treat it like we’ve done all of our other modes—that is, first as a mode and then looking at its role within the system, instead of looking at the system and what role high-speed rail can play in the way that we need to move people on an intercity basis.

Q: What can we learn from European approaches to transportation policy?

One thing we can learn is an increase in fuel tax will cause people to behave differently. We saw that a little bit last year when gas went to $4 per gallon and driving reduced, and some people shifted over to transit. That sort of ran counter to what a lot of people in the popular press believed and what people’s instincts were, and that is, the car would be the last thing people would give up, and they’ll pay $4 per gallon of gas and not change their behavior.

The U.S. is an international model for its freight

system connectivity, while Europe has a better-

connected passenger rail system, according to

Van Beek.

It proved not to be true. And I think it’s proven in Europe not to be true, and in many of the congested areas of Europe you have many more transportation choices because the price of driving is more commensurate with the true cost, all factors considered, of driving. So first off, we can learn the role of alternatives in Europe and I think we can learn the role of connectivity in the passenger system.

It’s interesting. When I was at the U.S. Department of Transportation, I had some round-robin discussions with other transportation officials from Europe and one of the things we always talked about was the fact that we have much better freight connectivity here than in Europe and they have much better passenger connectivity in Europe than our country. What you see now in Europe is they’re trying to very much improve their freight connectivity system. Hopefully, we’re both sort of coming to the center, and they’ll be improving their freight sector and we’ll be improving our passenger sector.

Q: What are some of the most feasible alternatives to the gas tax?

I think in the long run, the vehicle mile traveled fee is part of it. I think in the metropolitan areas, congestion pricing is part of it, or what they call in some areas “cordon pricing.” In the short-term, if we don’t increase the fuel taxes, by default what we will be saying to the rest of the country is to put more toll roads in. Because obviously, there is no free lunch, and if we don’t have public money, we’re going to have to contract out and lease and involve more private operators in our road network. In the longrun, I think we have some political footwork to do with the American people on the VMT tax, to tell them it can be done in ways that don’t violate their privacy, in ways improve

Q: Should the federal government provide assistance to transit agencies on operations costs?

In my view, yes. If I go back to having an alternatives analysis and finding if these investments are efficient, I think that’s the key criteria. And I think what we’ll find is in congested metropolitan areas, it is economically efficient both because of congestion reduction and because of air quality to subsidize transit. There was a recent study in the American Economic Review that actually studied internalizing those external costs and it found in places like London and Washington, D.C., that it was economically efficient to do it. But I think we have to be careful. Operating assistance shouldn’t be seen as letting the local guys off the hook in terms of their need to raise money and partner with the federal government.

Q: How would you compare the range and depth of debate going on now to what you’ve seen over your 25 years of work in transportation policy?

I would say it’s the most wide-ranging debate I’ve seen. Our financial model is unsustainable, and everybody recognizes that there must be significant change to reform our structure. I’m also very heartened by the fact that on some of the very biggest questions—should we use transportation to help improve the climate, should we have transportation alternatives, should we provide flexibility locally, should we have a national program that looks at major national and regional projects of significance—there’s great agreement on a lot of those factors.

I actually think we are well positioned, once we are into economic recovery, to have a very good reform effort. I would contrast that with the aviation side, where we still don’t have basic agreement about how we’re going to do things like pay for air traffic control modernization and improve traffic control in our airspace and airports.

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