A Counterpoint to, “A Constrained Federal Aid Highway Program: Rightsizing for the 21st Century?”

Transportation Consultant

In the October edition of Eno Brief, Steve Lockwood presented one view of a future Federal Aid Highway Program under constrained finances. I do not want to argue with his proposal, but rather suggest that there is a fundamentally different approach meriting equal consideration. In the debate that will lead to the reauthorization of the future federal-aid highway and transit programs, additional options and further analysis of today’s situation will contribute to the discussion that he and I agree has to occur.

Steve established a set of national priorities that he believes should receive funding priority under various reduced federal funding scenarios. He envisions a System of National Significance (SNS) incorporating a High-Standard “Intelligent” Core National Highway Network. “The core SNS would be fully instrumented and designed to capitalize on new technology – public and private – including automated and connected vehicles and advanced ITS and telematics.”

He also advocates maintaining “Issue Related Priority Programs” including safety, roads on federal lands, expanded research, data, education, administration, and planning, which I fully agree with.

My counterpoint proposal has two fundamental elements:

  1. Priority under limited resources should be limited to maintaining prior federal investment in federal-aid systems, particularly the Interstate System. I would use available funds to maintain the performance of existing systems and the investments that have been made. Under this approach there should be enough funds to support issue related priority programs. More fundamentally, I strongly argue that new system capacity should be funded by user fees—not federal-aid—unless a state certifies that prior federal investments are being maintained.
  2. The periodic Department of Transportation reports to Congress on the “Condition and Performance of the Nation’s Surface Highway and Transit Systems” should undergo a fundamental restructuring. The reports are not serving Congress, the administration or the broader transportation community in formulating future federal-aid highway and transit programs. While the data base of highway sections and the needs computation methodology are sound, I do not believe that national totals of highway and transit needs to which the reports are limited, are helpful to Congress in formulating a reauthorization of the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act (ISTEA) and its successors that will meet the needs of 50 states and over 300 metropolitan areas. In recent years states, metropolitan areas, and transit operators have worked within the limitations of existing programs and created additional investment mechanisms. The reality and the successes of what the states, metropolitan areas and the many transit providers have achieved, in spite of federal fiscal and regulatory policies, is totally lost in the very constrained presentations in the reports to Congress. Congress and the administration deserve to have totals by state and major metropolitan areas, not only of the highway and transit needs estimates, but also a summary of system investments that have been made and the investment mechanisms, conventional and innovative that have been utilized. The numbers are all available, but there is an out-of-date impression that the federal government should not publish data that would allow evaluation of performance of transportation systems in individual states. The federal government has worked with the states since 1916 in a program that is a model for federal/state partnership. Its success has been heralded for years. I am puzzled in these days of support for performance monitoring, about why it is considered to be not politically correct to publish accomplishments, needs, and successful approaches, by state.

Let me lay some additional groundwork in support of my two premises. ISTEA was to be the basis for the post interstate highway program. As a Federal Highway Administration manager, I had significant input to the administration’s proposal, particularly to the National Highway System, in what became ISTEA. Congress took a modest administration proposal and expanded it in many ways. Interest groups had input to the administration proposal, and more importantly to the Congressional bill through the efforts of the late Senator Daniel Moynihan (D-NY). Virtually all parties celebrated the enactment of ISTEA for its funding levels and its innovative substance.

ISTEA with its reauthorizations has had a good, almost 25-year run. The investments made under it have proven to be beneficial. Congress in its wisdom contributed to its merit by subsequently eliminating the practice of Congressionally-mandated demonstration projects. However, a hard look at what has happened long term under ISTEA—as well as the transportation investments that have occurred outside the ISTEA framework—lead me to conclude that while ISTEA has had a good run, it has not fulfilled its expectations. I believe it is time to go back to the type of fundamental questions that were asked in the broadly participatory exercise in the run-up to ISTEA.

It is not likely in the short term that any federal taxation mechanism will be available to support a federal aid program larger than we currently have available. Accordingly, I do not believe it possible to structure a new program that targets federal priorities at the program levels where we are and where I believe we are going to remain.

There is also a new reality out there. Neither federal highway and transit aid nor federal highway systems are driving new capacity investment. States with serious transportation deficiencies have established investment programs that move beyond current federal-aid, using bonding, tolls, high occupancy vehicle lanes, variable pricing, etc., to try to get the job done. They are often forced to work around outdated federal laws and rules. Many states and metropolitan areas are doing a much better job of coordinating highway and transit investment than the feds.

By default—and the realization of the limitations on federal funds—many states, metropolitan areas, and state-created authorities are using the approaches characterized above to overcome the limitations of the federal-aid program to achieve project improvements their system planning tells them are significant, cost effective and achievable.

Steve and others have confined their analysis to the highway program. As an engineer/planner whose career was grounded in urban transportation demand analysis, I have often argued that I do not know how to conduct highway planning in urban areas, but instead only multimodal analysis. Going back to the 1973 Highway Act, there has been an increasing degree of flexibility between federal assistance to highways and transit. The choice has not been federal, but at the option of state and local officials acting through MPOs. I argue that such flexibility has to be maintained in any future surface transportation reauthorization.

Underlying my entire argument is my personal conclusion that the assumptions no longer hold that were the foundation of the highway program since its founding and the federal assistance to transit since it was initiated in the early 1960s. The Interstate System program has been remarkably successful. Similarly, transit in the country has rebounded. The declining ridership and failing transit systems of the 1960s are a thing of the past. Federal, state and local investments have worked in both the highway and transit programs.

Going forward I believe we no longer have a national surface transportation problem. On the highways side, perhaps 20 to 30 states are doing just fine. I believe Steve’s system of national significance would only have links in perhaps half the states and then only in major metropolitan areas. In transit there is a similar situation, the “new start” agenda has largely been successfully played out. If only the reports to Congress would break out of their national snapshots and capture the dynamism that is occurring throughout the country, we would be in a better position to define and then debate the options that are relevant today.


In the future under constrained funding, we should put federal priority on protecting past investments and give states, metropolitan areas, transit operators, and special authorities the leeway to invest in ways that take advantage of all the mechanisms that we define as innovative finance.

We also need to immediately undertake a broader analysis of the performance and needs of our nation’s highway and transit systems. We need to document and analyze the mechanisms that leading states and metropolitan areas are using as they work with the current inadequate mechanisms. We then need to report the results by states and major metropolitan areas. Congress, the administration, the broader transportation community and the public deserve no less.

Let’s continue the discussion.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The Eno Center for Transportation.