USDOT Deputy Assistant Secretary for Transportation Policy Beth Osborne discusses new federal transportation law.
ULI infrastructure leaders had the opportunity September 6 to speak with Beth Osborne, USDOT deputy secretary for transportation policy, about the new transportation law and what it means for urban areas. ULI Infrastructure Initiative advisory group members David Leininger, executive vice president and chief financial officer for Dallas Area Rapid Transit, and Emil Frankel, visiting scholar, Bipartisan Policy Center, provided their perspectives.
Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century (MAP-21), the new two-year federal surface transportation bill, was signed into law July 6, 2012. MAP-21 authorizes federal spending through September 30, 2014 totaling $82 billion for roads, bridges, pedestrian and bicycle facilities and $21 billion for transit. Although Congress made only very modest increases to the amount of money going to transportation, MAP-21 does bring some significant policy changes.
Osborne drove home two messages for urban advocates seeking to understand MAP-21 and influence its implementation. First, “the relationship with your state government is paramount,” she said. Second, she emphasized the importance of the new performance measures in the bill. “Pay attention to performance measures and how they might impact your community,” she urged. “We want your input to make sure the measures support what you are trying to achieve at the local level and aren’t pushing investment in the opposite direction.”
MAP-21 empowers state governments; the federal purse strings no longer hold as much strength. MAP-21 consolidates what had been dozens of highway and transit programs, each with its own specific purpose, down to a handful of larger programs with broader mandates. While most everyone agreed that the proliferating federal transportation programs needed to be reined in, fewer programs with larger budgets—distributed by formula— give states more discretion in how to spend funds.
In addition, Congress kept its “no earmarks” pledge and also looked unfavorably on expanding discretionary grant programs. As a result, although historically formulas funneling money to states and transit agencies have distributed 80 percent of federal highway and transit money, “MAP-21 boosts that percentage to over 92%, leaving less than eight percent of funds” to be spent under the direction of USDOT, according to analysis by the Eno Center for Transportation.
Here’s where the performance measures come in. Instead of earmarks, targeted programs, and federal grants, accountability in MAP-21 comes through the introduction of performance measures. States and metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs) are required to develop performance measures that will eventually guide the selection of transportation investments.
As Osborne explained, USDOT will be developing performance measures covering bridge and pavement conditions, highway movement, safety in terms of both fatalities and injuries, congestion, air quality, and freight movement. States and MPOs may develop additional performance measures.
For urban areas, the performance measures for safety and congestion will be critically important. If, for example, congestion measures focus mostly on moving vehicles rather than moving people, the result could be a push for higher traffic speeds in urban areas and new roadway capacity. The future of urban transportation systems will be shaped by how USDOT, state governments, and MPOs craft performance measures.
Emil Frankel noted, however, that MAP-21’s performance measure requirements are really just small steps on the way to what he hopes will become a more robust and accountable performance management system that will link investments of federal funds by state and local agencies to national goals. For the system to really work, he maintained, we need to address “how an overall program performs, not just an individual project.”
Although MAP-21 provides little additional funding for the traditional formula and grant programs, the new law does dramatically expand the TIFIA loan and loan guarantee program. Congress also turned TIFIA into a first come, first served program and limited the evaluation criteria to just creditworthiness. To date, TIFIA has mostly supported toll roads, but Osborne explained that transit projects have always been eligible to apply.
David Leininger related how DART had successfully tapped TIFIA to support transit expansion, although he warned fellow transit agencies that TIFIA can be more complicated to engage than other sources of finance. He also expressed concern that the federal team administering TIFIA would be given the necessary resources to process the increased number of applications in a timely manner. To participate in the new TIFIA, Leininger agreed with Osborne’s advice: “transit needs to get moving and get into the queue.”
The MAP-21 conversation with Osborne, Frankel, and Leininger was convened by ULI’s Infrastructure Initiative, District Council group, and the Rose Center for Public Leadership.