The purpose of this morning's hearing is to receive testimony on the eligibility of programs and flexibility in the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act. ISTEA was a landmark law that afforded the states unprecedented flexibility in spending their federal transportation dollars.
One of the important considerations to keep in mind as we develop a Committee recommendation for the reauthorization is the diversity and uniqueness of the country and all of its transportation needs. All of us must resist the temptation to set a national transportation policy based solely on our own region's particular demands. The demands of the Northeast are different from those of the South; the demands of the South are different from those of the West. And so on. We need to be cognizant of the population growth that has taken place in the South and Southwest and the strains that such growth has put on areas within that region. Many of the Western states, by contrast, with their low population density and the great distances involved in travel, rely on highways as the major mode of transportation. We also need to acknowledge the uniqueness of the Northeast United States; its older infrastructure and acute congestion make it more dependent on non-highway modes such as transit and Amtrak. Attempts to pass a new bill by forming alliances along regional lines will fail unless the bill recognizes the needs of all regions.
Another consideration that cannot be overlooked is the primary purpose of ISTEA, that is, the efficient movement of people and goods. ISTEA recognized that transportation is but one part of a complex web of competing and often conflicting demands. By unleashing the efficiency and environmental benefits of all modes of surface transportation, highways, rail and transit, the ISTEA reauthorization can meet these demands and deliver a better quality of life for all. Today's hearing is important because it will examine how the eligibility of ISTEA programs can address the nation's diverse transportation needs. A number of today's witnesses will recommend expanding the eligibility of highway trust fund monies to accommodate alternative modes, such as Amtrak and freight rail. Others will argue that the spending categories under ISTEA should be more constrained.
I am sensitive to American taxpayers' receiving a fair shake for the contributions they make to the Highway Trust Fund. Along those lines, I co-sponsored a bill with Senators Bond, Cochran, Nickles, Gregg and Smith, to strengthen the link between taxes going into the trust fund and expenditures from the trust fund. However, let me repeat my fervent belief that gasoline taxes should not drive transportation policy.
Rather, national transportation policy must focus on needs, which brings us back to the focus of today's hearing. Maintaining and building upon the broad eligibilities provided in ISTEA is essential to creating the most efficient transportation system possible.
I am hopeful that the ISTEA reauthorization will build upon the strong record of its predecessor. Admittedly, the transition from old policies and practices to those embodied in ISTEA has not always been easy, and more work needs to be done. However, we should not let these bumps in the road cause us to retreat from the progress we have made.