The surprise in the transportation budget

  • Ray LaHood

    Ray LaHood

    Transportation secretary

  • Beth Osborne

    Beth Osborne

    US DOT deputy assitant secretary and team leader for sustainable communities

Robert Steuteville, Better! Cities & Towns

Though hardly anyone has noticed, the proposed 2013 budget of the US Department of Transportation (DOT) promises a remarkable advance: It takes livability mainstream.

While recent transportation news has centered on Congressional proposals to remove transit from the Highway Trust Fund, DOT itself has proposed far-reaching reforms that would promote livability and complete streets. So far, these reforms in the $476 billion budget, which includes a six-year transportation reauthorization, have mostly flown under the radar.

DOT’s multimodal, competitive TIGER grant program, introduced in 2009, has been the most innovative transportation program in decades — and at $2.56 billion over the last three years, it has made up more than three-quarters of the administration’s Partnership for Sustainable Communities funding. Yet TIGER comprises a tiny portion of overall federal transportation spending.

Now DOT is applying these community-oriented ideas to a significantly larger share of proposed six-year expenditures. In essence, DOT wants to take livability mainstream in the following ways:

• Adopt a broad “complete streets” policy. DOT proposes requiring that all “open access roads” be built as “complete streets” with accommodation for bicycle and pedestrian travel.

• Consolidate programs and set new goals. Redundant highway and transit programs would be consolidated, and substantial new line items would be geared toward livability. The Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) budget includes $27.4 billion for “livable communities” over a half-dozen years. The Federal Transit Administration (FTA) includes $21 billion for its “transit expansion and livable communities” program.

• Adopt Transportation Leadership Awards. The multimodal $20 billion “Leadership Awards” program is modeled after the Department of Education’s Race to the Top program, and would allow DOT to provide substantial, flexible grants to states and communities that “go above and beyond” the minimum.

• Combine intercity rail with transit-oriented development (TOD). Substantial funding is provided for inter-city rail, buttressed by a policy that would promote transit-oriented development and community revitalization around station areas.

Build complete streets first

The Complete Streets policy goes substantially beyond DOT’s past efforts.  “Instead of saying here’s money to create a street without thinking about bicyclists and pedestrians and there’s a small set-aside to fix the mistake,” says Beth Osborne, deputy assistant secretary for transportation policy, “we are going to say just use the formula-grant funding to create a complete street.”

Consolidation of programs makes sense, Osborne said in a press briefing sponsored by Smart Growth America. “Everyone agrees that having dozens and dozens of programs within the highway program is not an effective way to put together a strong multimodal system.” Yet the consolidation also gave DOT the chance to more strongly emphasize its five goals — livability, sustainability, economic development, safety, and maintaining state of repair.

The Leadership Awards program, at $20 billion, builds on the TIGER idea of strongly emphasizing competition, merit, and multimodal thinking. “We are looking for reforms that will fundamentally change the transportation system at the state and local level,” Osborne explains. “ … In many cases, states have prohibitions of gas taxes going toward alternative transportation. If they were to remove that, that would be quite impressive and put them up for a leadership award, which involves substantial and flexible cash.”

The budget includes $47 billion over six years for “high-speed rail” that funds three tiers of service: core express (125-250+ mph), regional (90-125 mph) and emerging corridors (up to 90 mph). It would also provide funding for station development with an emphasis on linking to local transit, roadway and bike/pedestrian networks. “The livability opportunities that come with inter-city rail are immense,” Osborne says. “Just the stations that are built along the line create opportunities to invest in that local community in a strong way.”

The budget also calls for a $50 billion investment program for 2012, including a $4 billion Transportation Infrastructure Grant (TIG) program, very similar to TIGER. The Overall DOT program is paid for partly through military savings from removing troops from Iraq and Afghanistan.

How much of this will fly in an election year with a deeply divided Congress is a question. But the fact that such far-reaching reforms are being advanced is a hopeful sign for proponents of mixed-use communities and multimodal transportation. 

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