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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Transportation Funding

Air Date: Week of

The federal Transportation Efficiency Act, known as ISTEA is up for reauthorization this year. The question is whether Congress will renew funding for innovative mass transit and human-powered transit projects, or return all funds to highway projects. Hank Dittmar, President of the Surface Transportation Policy Project, discusses the issues with Steve.


CURWOOD: Until 1991 nearly all Federal transportation funds, including gasoline tax revenues, went into building the interstate highway system. Then the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act came along and broadened the focus from highway building to include community revitalization and environmental protection. Now the Transportation Efficiency Act is up for reauthorization. The Clinton Administration has called for a renewal of funds, with some earmarked for building public transit links between inner city residents and suburban jobs. Hank Dittmar is president of the Surface Transportation Policy Project. He says Congress may roll back the innovations of the Transportation Efficiency Act and return Federal help to an era when almost all funds flowed into highways, a time that Mr. Dittmar says had a disastrous impact on communities.

DITTMAR: You know, I live in a community where I'm fortunate enough to be able to walk to the train, walk to the grocery store, walk to the shoe repair store. And that's not true for most Americans. I don't have to get in my automobile, and as a result my quality of life is better. We've legislated that kind of community out of existence in a lot of our metropolitan areas, and we've spent highway funds to destroy those kinds of communities. Now it's time to begin spending those funds to build them back again.

CURWOOD: Somebody who's listening to us talking right now, let's say they're stuck in traffic in some beltway around a city, creeping along. What are you calling for that could get this person home quicker?

DITTMAR: Well, we're grappling with I think what is one of the thornier problems that we face in this country, and that is sprawl. Our metropolitan areas are growing out, and each time they grow out we build new roads which cause them to grow out still further. And in the process we leave behind a lot of people in the center city who are isolated from jobs and really left without the wealth that moves out to the suburbs. This is an environmental problem because of the loss of farmland and the air pollution, but it's a social problem because we're essentially leaving the poor behind in the hole in the doughnut. So we're calling for a transportation and land use pilot program to really look at the possibility of growing jobs where infrastructure transit already is. And we're calling for a job access program that would deal with the real challenge the country faces with Welfare reform by trying to create jobs in center cities and get people in center cities who need jobs in the suburbs out to the suburbs.

CURWOOD: Your organization, the Surface Transportation Policy Project, has come up with a couple of proposals. One of these calls for devoting some of the gas tax to trains, to Amtrak. I'm wondering, where would this money come from? Would it come out of highway funds, or would it come from other public transit funds?

DITTMAR: Well, we certainly don't think that it should come out of other public transit funds. We spend $5 for highways for every $1 we spend for public transit. We think it could come out of funds that are not currently being allocated to either highways or transit, and our proposal that if we increase the overall level of spending on transportation, that about a half a cent of the current gas tax be dedicated to providing capital funding for the Amtrak system. And this would benefit not just the Northeast Corridor, where Amtrak comes very close to breaking even and making a profit, but a lot of isolated rural communities where train service is the only time the outside world really passes by.

CURWOOD: Anything else about the Transportation Efficiency Act you'd like to see changed?

DITTMAR: Well, we're calling for a renewed emphasis on managing transportation systems in metropolitan areas, and a move toward creating choices for people when they face their daily commute. We're calling for a national initiative on transportation and the environment, and we're calling for a fix it first policy, which would ask state highway agencies to fix roads before they build new ones.

CURWOOD: What can be done to ensure that the roads that are built are better maintained?

DITTMAR: There ought to be a requirement that before you build a new road you commit the resources to maintain it over its lifetime. We would like to see a change in Federal procedures to allow states to ask contractors to guarantee their work.

CURWOOD: Now, I want to be sure I understand this right. Right now the current Federal law says that if I'm a state, it's illegal for me to require a guarantee for the road that is being built by a contractor?

DITTMAR: Well, that's right. The state can inspect the road before it accepts it and decide whether it's in good shape, but it can only inspect it to see that the specifications were met. Going beyond that and asking contractors to design and build and guarantee a road for a specified lifetime is illegal.

CURWOOD: Now when you go to Europe, you don't see all the construction that's going on. For example, the autobahns in Germany. I mean they're very fast, very busy roads. Do they have road building guarantees there?

DITTMAR: Well in fact, this is an idea that originated in Europe. And in Europe they do plan to build roads to last 30, 40, and even 50 years. The less we have to go back and repair roads after we build them, the better for the environment and certainly the better for the harried commuter who's stuck in traffic.

CURWOOD: Now, what about -- looking at our economy. The automobile industry, the highway lobby, they say look, the Gross Domestic Product in this country is really dependent on the automobile and the trucking industry. And that if we cut funding for highways we're going to hurt this economic keystone that we have. That a legitimate argument?

DITTMAR: Well, it's certainly true that transportation is a good part of our Gross Domestic Product. But it's also interesting to note whether that's a positive or a negative. I mean, all this money we spend on transportation is money we spend inefficiently getting people around. And they haven't really shown the link between investment in highways and increased productivity. Most of the studies I've seen about productivity show that highway construction creates highway building jobs. Well, transit construction does, too, and so does digging a hole and filling it back up again. The era where we could generate wealth by building roads in the hinterland is long over, and folks who would have you believe that that's the way to create wealth are stuck in the 50s.

CURWOOD: Hank Dittmar is president of the Surface Transportation Policy Project in Washington. Thanks for joining us.

DITTMAR: It was my pleasure.



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