Since the emergence of the automobile and the rapid spread of urban sprawl, America has increasingly relied on the building of highways as its primary mode of transportation. The country has had to face repercussions of a highway system that does not adequately meet the needs of all Americans. Additionally, the lack of oversight on how transportation funding is spent denies the creation and implementation of a unified national vision for transportation in the United States.

Former Obama administration senior Department of Transportation (DOT) official Beth Osborne’s Century Foundation report, “New Principles for Our Transportation Program” outlines a number of steps that the next president will need to take to ensure a successful and promising future for America’s transportation system. She calls on the next president to support projects that reflect federal transportation priorities and move away from solely prioritizing discrete transportation solutions such as highway and transit and instead promote more cost-effective projects.

Here are four steps the next president should take when envisioning America’s transportation infrastructure program:

1. Prioritize maintenance and repair before funding new construction projects.

  • Currently, state DOTs are not required to spend any federal funding they receive for transportation projects on maintenance and repair.
  • The federal government should provide funding for maintenance and repair through a competitive program that will elicit more thoughtful approaches to transportation challenges they face. Funding for new projects will be contingent on whether or not communities are upkeeping their existing transportation infrastructure.
  • In addition to encouraging alternative modes of transportation, the USDOT’s Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) program should be used to prioritize maintenance and derive ways to meet transportation needs.

2. Encourage alternative forms of movement that rely less on “the highway program.”

  • As funding distributed to DOTs is most commonly used to build and expand highways, and revenue generated for non-highway projects is often difficult to raise, such alternative forms of movement have been neglected.
  • As the building of highways is inextricably linked to the coordination of land use, it is imperative that local municipalities, state DOTs, MPOs, and transit agencies coordinate their efforts to diversify modes of travel.

3. Reward innovation through competition and expanding performance measures.

  • Under the the Federal Highway Administration’s MAP-21, twelve performance areas would be measured to gauge how states, MPOs, and transit agencies allocate transportation funds. When targets aren’t met, they should lose flexibility over a portion of their funds and be reported to the public.
  • In addition to measuring the effects of MAP-21 specifically on transportation, federal transportation funding should be tracked to examine its influence on job creation and growth and on strengthening of the economy.
  • Once federal transportation guidelines are reprioritized, the administration should publicly reward those who met their targets with praise and additional financial resources.
  • Another way to encourage alternative modes of transportation is to make the TIGER program the model for funding large impact capacity projects at less expensive costs. Increasing the use of a competitive program such as TIGER will spur an increase in transportation projects of all modes that meet federal priorities.

4. Allocate transportation funds that more directly address current transportation needs.

  • The 2015 Fixing America’s Surface Transportation Act, or FAST Act, which provides $70 billion in funding for surface transportation infrastructure, is insufficient as it will exhaust its reserves by 2021.
  • Gas tax revenues have been falling due to a drop in miles driven. The federal government is encouraged to raise the gas tax in order to automatically increase the revenue stream for funding transportation infrastructure. It would be beneficial to transition from implementing a gas tax to a Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMT) tax in order to charge drivers by the mile as opposed to gas emissions.
  • Additional revenue can be generated through removing the ban on tolling interstates and increasing congestion pricing, a system that charges drivers for using the highway during times of high-demand.

Cover Photo: Jiuguang Wang, View of downtown Pittsburgh from Mount Washington, near the Duquesne Incline (Flickr)