Consensus on National Transport Goals Still Eludes Industry Pros

Policymakers and private-sector players seem to be struggling to
agree on how — and whether — to set national performance targets for
America’s transportation system, as evidenced by today’s debate at a
high-profile infrastructure conference.

interstate_traffic.jpg(Photo: UVA)

"Performance-based"
is a popular buzzword in transportation circles, where clear and
definable national standards are seen as the best way to improve
efficiency, cut emissions, and marshal public support for shared
sacrifice to improve the system.

But the lone congressional proposal
to set national transportation goals, including an annual reduction in
per-capita vehicle miles traveled and a focus on repairing existing
assets, has languished on the Hill.

The current long-term House transport bill leaves the
difficult question of measurable performance targets to state DOTs and
metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs), which could have a vested
interest in keeping the bar low.

Given that uncertainty,
attendees at today’s University of Virginia infrastructure policy
conference spoke of forging consensus on how to achieve a
"performance-based" system.

Yet the very question of setting national goals appeared to divide and disillusion several speakers.

"Everyone
agrees that performance ought to be the driver," said Mortimer Downey,
President Clinton’s deputy Transportation Secretary and current chairman of the firm PB Consult.

"[But] I’m concerned when I see legislation come out," Downey said —
however "well-intentioned" that legislation may be — that attempts to
set transportation performance goals for the states. National goals, he
added, shouldn’t turn into "national diktats."

Steve Heminger, executive director
of the San Francisco area’s MPO, said specific national goals were "the
key missing ingredient" that could restore public faith in the
importance of transportation spending. "They need to be readily
understandable … things that states and metro areas can be rewarded
for meeting and penalized for failing."

Still, Heminger
sounded pessimistic about the public’s willingness to coalesce in
support of a set of transportation targets. The interstate highway
system built during the Eisenhower era "was something everyone could
rally around," he said. "We’re never going to have that again."

Craig Lentzsch, a former Greyhound president who served on the federal panel that recommended
a 10-cent gas tax increase earlier this year, emphasized the need for
specificity in what transportation dollars would be used for rather
than the environmental benefits that would result.

"If you pick a goal, you may be inherently picking a winner from the mode system," Lentzsch said.

  • Goals sound great in concept but they can easily become the cart leading the horse–projects will be conceptualized and deformed to meet the criteria of the goals which sort of defeats the purpose, doesn’t it? Especially a set of goals being set at the national level are likely an illusion not worth chasing.

  • DJB

    The goals average Americans have for the transportation system chill me to the bone. Make it easier for more cars to drive more quickly. This is the visceral, gut reaction your average American has when you ask him/her about what needs to be done to “fix” our transportation system. And then when you ask:

    What about the environment?
    Shit, I’ve got places to drive / only SUVs are safe / people with good cars are successful.

    What about bikes?
    They take away too much space from cars / those people are crazy.

    What about transit?
    Only poor people ride that / it’s too slow.

    What about walking?
    I walk, to my driveway.

    Gasoline?
    It’s too expensive!!! Gas tax holiday!

    Urban Form?
    Decent people live in suburbs. That’s the American Dream.

    Parking?
    Build more! Parking must always be free!

    Obesity?
    That’s why I drive to the gym.

    Well, that’s why this blog exists right? We should create an inspiring vision of the future we could have, that never looses sight of the present we are still struggling out of. How do you get different ideas from wonks’ heads into mainstream discussions?

  • kellyp

    @DJB

    true.

  • DJB

    On the bright side though, my dad rode the Blue Line for the first time a couple weeks ago. Sometimes, you push and push thinking you aren’t making any progress, and then people surprise you . . .

  • “If you pick a goal, you may be inherently picking a winner from the mode system,” Lentzsch said.

    I’m okay with that. I’m okay with picking sustainable transport methods and letting them win. I’m okay with saying to the private automobile, “Hey! You don’t meet our goals! You lose!”

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