Nation Needs Transportation Action

Posted December 5, 2003 at 11:43am

On Nov. 18, the bipartisan leadership of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee unveiled a six-year, $375 billion surface transportation package to replace the expiring Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century, more commonly known as TEA-21.

The new bill (H.R. 3550: The Transportation Equity Act: A Legacy for Users) makes the level of investment America needs to meet the transportation challenges of the next six years. It is a fitting addition to the progression of innovative, forward-looking surface transportation bills produced by Congress.

In the mid-20th century, we invested more than $114 billion in constructing the 42,800-mile interstate system to connect our cities, farms and defense bases. This investment has paid phenomenal returns in mobility, productivity and economic growth. It is an unparalleled success: The interstate system accounts for only 1 percent of highway miles in this country, but carries 24 percent of our highway traffic.

As the Interstate system neared completion, our vision of transportation began to shift. The Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act in 1991 focused new efforts (and funding) on transit, congestion mitigation, intelligent transportation systems and transportation alternatives such as pedestrian walkways and bike paths. The landmark achievement of ISTEA was its vision for transportation policy: looking beyond highways and focusing on where people want to go and how we can provide choices to get them there.

In 1998, Congress built upon the vision of ISTEA. With passage of TEA-21, we authorized $218 billion for our highways, transit systems, and related safety programs — the highest surface transportation funding levels in U.S. history and 44 percent more than ISTEA. We codified the principle that the highway user fees collected from the traveling public will be invested in our surface transportation infrastructure each and every year. That is the landmark achievement of TEA-21, and we have invested more in our national transportation infrastructure over the six-year life of that single bill than in the 40 years of building the Interstate highways. [IMGCAP(1)]

Our new bill, H.R. 3550, builds upon the vision of ISTEA, maintains the guaranteed funding principle of TEA-21, and outlines its own landmark achievement: providing the investment levels necessary to maintain and begin to improve our nation’s highway and transit infrastructure. At $375 billion over six years, the bill provides a 72 percent increase in funding over TEA-21. We increase investment in highway and highway and motor carrier safety programs from $177 billion under TEA-21 to $306 billion under this bill. Similarly, for transit, we almost double the investment: growing from $36.2 billion guaranteed under TEA-21 to $69.2 billion under the introduced bill.

These increased funding levels are based on the Transportation Department’s own estimates of the federal investment necessary to maintain and begin to improve our nation’s surface transportation system. These numbers also reflect what the Texas Transportation Institute has repeatedly told us: Congestion is beginning to cripple our largest cities, the primary engines of our nation’s economic growth. In 75 large metropolitan areas alone, the cost of congestion is $69.5 billion — including 3.5 billion hours of delay and 5.7 billion gallons of excess fuel consumption. The average annual delay for every person in these cities has climbed to 26 hours. While these statistics are startling, the average American family does not need them recited — they are stuck in traffic on their way home from work, picking up the kids at daycare, or running the endless errands that seem a part of today’s society, and they lose what precious little time they have together.

More importantly, our nation’s highways, bridges, and transit systems are not as safe as they need to be and the highway death toll is unacceptably high. Over the past 25 years, 1.2 million people have died on our roads. Last year, 42,815 people died and 2.9 million more were injured on our highways. Highway fatalities remain the leading cause of death of our youth (people ages 4 to 33). In addition to the personal tragedy of each of these deaths and many of the injuries, the economic cost of these accidents is more than $230 billion per year.

Despite the significant funding increases of TEA-21, current levels of surface transportation investment are insufficient to fund high-cost transportation infrastructure facilities that address critical economic and transportation needs. These projects have national and regional benefits, including facilitating international trade, relieving congestion, and improving transportation safety by significantly improving freight and passenger movement in critical transportation bottlenecks. The bill creates a $17.6 billion Projects of National and Regional Significance program to enable the secretary of Transportation to competitively select such projects (costing more than $500 million) for federal funding.

I also want to touch on a much smaller, but equally important, new program: Safe Routes to School. Several years ago, I began working with two communities, Marin County, Calif., and Arlington, Mass., to develop a program to enable and encourage children to walk or bike to school. These two pilot projects have been incredible successes. With this experience in hand, the bill creates a new $1.5 billion Safe Routes to School formula program to enable and encourage children to walk or bike to school; to make bicycling and walking to school a safer and more appealing transportation alternative, thereby encouraging a healthy and active lifestyle from an early age; and to improve safety and reduce traffic, wasted fuel and air pollution in school neighborhoods.

America needs this legislation. Our economy is losing $300 billion per year because we are not investing the necessary resources to maintain and improve the nation’s transportation infrastructure. We cannot afford to continue to shortchange America’s transportation. To reduce congestion, increase mobility, improve highway safety, and achieve long-term productivity and economic growth, we must make this investment in our nation’s future. And we must do it now.

Rep. James Oberstar (D-Minn.) is ranking member of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.