Testimony of Hank Dittmar
Executive Director
Surface Transportation Policy Project
Reauthorization of the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act
before the Subcommittee on Transportation & Infrastructure
Environment and Public Works Committee
United States Senate
February 26,1997

Mr. Chairman and Members of the Subcommittee, thank you for the invitation to appear before you today to discuss the need for continued federal investment in -surface transportation through the reauthorization of the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act.

I am Hank Dittmar, Executive Director of the Surface Transportation Policy Project, a non-profit coalition of over two hundred organizations whose mission is to ensure that transportation policy and investments serve people and communities. Our members are national and local public interest groups concerned with the environment, energy conservation, the economy and social issues. They represent constituencies as diverse as the elderly, historic preservationists, transportation workers, taxpayer and citizen groups, communities of color and downtown business interests. We are united in the belief that balanced investment in surface transportation can strengthen the economy, protect the environment, help conserve energy and meet important social goals. I am joined today by Roy Kienitz, STPP's Assistant Director for Federal Affairs.

As you know, bipartisan majorities of the House and the Senate came together in 1991 to produce the landmark Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act. To sum up our position concisely, we feel that the legislation enacted in 1991 was a major advance in national transportation policy, and that it should serve as the basis for the 1997 surface transportation bill. ISTEA made major changes to federal transportation policy: unprecedented funding flexibility, a strong local role in decision making, an emphasis on multi-modal planning and attention to environmental impacts, among others.

We believe that ISTEA did an admirable job of balancing competing interests: on one hand, the obvious benefits of having more decisions made at the state and local level on the other, the need to articulate and protect a set of basic national interests. The Subcommittee has heard and will continue to hear from interest groups wanting a bigger slice of the pie. The trucking industry wants federal funds focused on truck routes; state transportation officials want state autonomy; donor states want their fair share; and on and on. If the federal role is reduced to redistributing money among states, industries and interest groups without any reference to broad, national goals, we fear that a national transportation system that contributes to national competitiveness is endangered.

So what is the federal interest? Although it is tempting to define it in terms of specific facilities, this approach at best approximates what we all agree are the ultimate goals -- a set of outcomes. The reason to have a road is not the road itself, but what it does for us. The time has come to acknowledge this explicitly, and base our policies on the outcomes we wish to achieve. STPP believes that there is a compelling federal interest in transportation, and that it can be described by five basic goals: a healthy economy; access to jobs, services and opportunities for all; a healthy environment; public safety; and productive investment of public funds. The federal transportation program should judged based on its ability to make progress toward these goals. We believe that ISTEA has measured up well in this regard, and proposed changes to it will have to perform equally well to gain our support.

As I said, we see five main areas of federal (and public) interest in transportation.

1. Economic Efficiency

First of all, investment of federal taxes in surface transportation should enhance the efficiency of the nation's economy by moving people and goods reliably and cost-effectively. Now that we have built an unparalleled Interstate system, our economic challenge is to plug gaps in the system, make intermodal connections and ensure that the metropolitan economies that drive our competitiveness do not bog down due to deteriorated facilities and congestion. Almost eighty percent of our people now live in center cities and their surrounding counties, and increasingly the health of these large metropolitan regions -- both cities and suburbs -- defines the economic health of the nation.

The economic health of small towns and rural communities also depends on continued investment in improving the safety and ensuring the rehabilitation of roads and bridges in rural areas. Indeed, from an economic standpoint, the paramount federal interest may be in the preservation and rehabilitation of the infrastructure we spent so much to build. Federal investment programs like those for maintenance of the Interstate system, rail modernization, bus replacement and bridge rehabilitation have proven their worth by improving the condition of these facilities.

According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, there is a gap of almost $15 billion per year in spending for maintenance and rehabilitation activities, yet, as the 1995 Conditions and Performance report states"... system preservation improvements in 1993 accounted for 42.2 percent of [capital] spending on non-local roads." In other words, more than half of the money going into capital expenditures on road projects in 1993 went for new additions to the system -- this at a time when less than 70% of the Interstate and arterial systems are in at least fair condition. Clearly there is a problem here, and this Committee should look into making system preservation a higher priority.

2. Access and Choice

As Dr. Thomas Larson, Federal Highway Administrator during the Bush Administration has pointed out, the first federal investment in transportation was undertaken on the basis of the general welfare clause of the Constitution. Clearly the investment of federal tax dollars in canals, then roads and bridges, then transit systems and now in intelligent transportation technologies has provided Americans with access to jobs, housing and opportunities on an unprecedented scale. This promotion of the general welfare is one of the key reasons for federal investment in surface transportation. When you ask people what kinds of transportation investments they see as best serving their welfare, you get some interesting results. Public opinion research we have commissioned shows that although over 70 percent of people use the car as their primary means of transportation, half would chose other options if they were available and convenient. Furthermore, people identify investments in widening existing roads or building new ones as relatively low priorities -- below encouraging ridesharing and investing in transit, and far below fixing existing roads and bridges.

Ensuring that the benefits of our investments are available to all Americans, whether young or old, rich or poor, living in urban areas, suburbs or rural areas, able or unable to drive, has also been a reason for federal investment and federal oversight. In addition, the Federal Transit Act, the Civil Rights Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act are all meant to ensure that access, mobility and choice are delivered to all. Basic access and mobility means facilitating travel by car, transit, bicycle and foot, as well as non-travel options allowed by telecommuting and mixed use development.

3. Environmental Stewardship and Energy Conservation

Transportation investments can and should contribute to meeting our environmental energy and public health goals. Furthermore, the federal government must take a significant share of the responsibility for assuring that the environmental effects of federal transportation investments are being understood and minimized.

This is no more true than with the consequences of high levels of oil consumption by the U.S. transportation system. Our policies should also contribute to the conservation of natural, scenic and historic resources, a posterity we received from our parents that we are responsible for passing on to our children. The powerful linkage between transportation and air quality cannot be ignored. Half of the ozone pollution that hovers in the air of many of our cities -- pollution that reduces the lung function of healthy adults, makes children, the elderly and sensitive populations like asthmatics short of breath, and costs the national economy billions of dollars in health care costs every year -- is the result of cars and trucks.

Make no mistake: transportation is an environmental issue, and transportation legislation is environmental legislation. Like it or not, the bill produced by this Committee this year will be judged against environmental goals.

4. Enhancing the Safety of the Transportation System

Public safety must continue to be a key reason for federal involvement in transportation. Although the long term decline in the rate of traffic fatalities per vehicle mile traveled is well documented, because of the robust and continuing increase in driving over the last 30 years, the overall number of traffic fatalities does not show a similar long term decline. Good progress has clearly been made on traffic safety, but this is in large part due to the commitment of the federal government to the issue. The federal commitment to safety should consider both users and non-users of the transportation system -- pedestrians as well as drivers, for example -- and should continue to examine topics like the role that road design standards play in encouraging greater speed. Setting goals and objectives for safety is important, but these objectives need to be accompanied by targeted funding.

5. Ensuring That Our Investments Perform

In spite of the rhetoric to the contrary, it is reasonable for the taxpayer to expect the federal government to monitor the expenditure of federal funds and ensure that they are leading to better performance. Congress has both the right and the responsibility to attach performance standards to the expenditure of funds collected with federal taxing authority.

ISTEA balanced the need for federal oversight with the need to provide state and local partners with increased authority to make sensible decisions at the local level. We need to continue this evolution by focusing federal oversight on improved outcomes and better performance, not on micro-management of process, engineering or accounting.

Investing in the National Interest -- Achieving Our Goals

ISTEA took us in the right direction by incorporating a series of basic methods of meeting overall goals into the federal transportation program. We believe your Committee should build on ISTEA's link to these key principles. We identify five core methods of relating the federal interest to local needs.

First, it is appropriate for the federal government to target funding to key areas where investment should occur. The Interstate Maintenance program for example, has demonstrably improved the condition of the interstate system. Similarly, Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality funding provides federal funds to comply with the federal Clean Air Act mandate. It is inconceivable from either the standpoint of honest intergovernmental relations or sensible environmental policy that this program would be singled out for cuts. Indeed, the proposed changes to air quality standards should lead to increased funding for this program.

Second, the targeting of funds should be balanced by robust flexibility, with a wide variety of uses for federal funds. Such flexibility should be accompanied by broadened eligibility, so that states and localities can respond to both local and national goals in ways appropriate to their particular situation. This flexibility should be tied to a sensible planning process -- one that links the selection of projects to a realistic idea of the amount of money available, an agreed-upon set of goals, and a rational evaluation of the different ways of pursuing the needs identified.

Third, providing and paying for transportation requires a strong partnership between local, state and federal governments, all of which own or have financial responsibility for key parts of the system. The federal government must provide the basic framework for this partnership, at least when it comes to spending federal funds, through its oversight of the process for making long-range plans and selecting projects. And where federal tax funds are involved, the federal government has a responsibility to assure that the taxpaying public continues to have role in the decisionmaking partnership.

Fourth, federal legislation should provide for balance, fairness and equity. ISTEA's renewal will have to balance investment in the national interest with the desire of individual states to maximize transportation funding. As states argue for specific formulas, however, Congress has the duty to assure another kind of balance --balance among modes, balance between state and local governments and balance among urban, suburban and rural areas. For example, USDOT studies reveal that while state road spending is largely paid by gas taxes, only 7 percent of local road spending comes from user fees.

Finally, accountability to taxpayers should be a hallmark of ISTEA's renewal. Taxpayers and system users should have access to timely and accurate information about the condition, performance and management of the transportation system and should have direct and open access to the decision making process. The best way to assure that transportation investments are responding to people's priorities is to involve them in the decision making process.

Preserving and Improving ISTEA -- STPP's Recommendations

The STPP coalition has formulated 25 specific recommendations for ISTEA reauthorization, which fall under the five headings listed below. We believe that the surface transportation program should be reauthorized at funding levels of $28-30 billion a year over a five or six year reauthorization period, and believe that current revenues accruing to the trust fund can support such a program level. Mr. Chairman, with your permission, I'd like to provide the Committee with copies of our entire reauthorization proposal, entitled "Blueprint for ISTEA Reauthorization."

I. Maintaining A National Commitment to Transportation.

Our economic health depends on a robust and efficient transportation system. The federal government should continue to fund transportation improvements at a high level, set the outlines of a national policy, and follow the principles that underlie ISTEA: funding flexibility, a strong local role, attention to environmental and community needs, a long-term focus and greater accountability

ISTEA's structure is sound, and should be retained.

II. Fix It First: Maintaining What We Have.

The first priority for federal highway money should be the maintenance of existing roads and bridges. To accomplish this, the two programs that dedicate funds directly to system preservation - the Bridge and Interstate Maintenance programs --should be retained. In addition, a national standard should be established for the condition of the Interstate system. No state should allow more than one-half of its Interstate miles to fall below "fair" condition. Those that do should be required to dedicate flexible funds to improving Interstate conditions. Those that do a good job maintaining Interstate highways should be rewarded.

Current law requires new transit projects to include a commitment of funds for maintenance for the project's useful life. New Highways should be held to the same standard. Federal standards that prohibit states from asking highway contractors to guarantee the performance of the roads they build should be repealed.

III. Providing Transportation Choices.

Current law's guarantees of funding for alternatives to highways -- the public transit and transportation enhancements programs -- should be retained. In addition, intercity rail service -- an area left out of ISTEA in 1991 -- should be eligible for ISTEA funding at state and local option and should receive dedicated funding just as highways and transit do. Biking and walking are real transportation options for many people, and federal policy should treat them fairly.

ISTEA II should inaugurate a new initiative to use transportation funding to help connect those making the transition from welfare to work with jobs. Poor transportation to suburban job sites is a barrier for urban welfare recipients, and transportation should start being part of the solution.

IV. Protecting Public Safety and the Environment.

ISTEA's Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality Improvement program should be maintained, both for its environmental benefits and as funding for a federal mandate. The federal commitment to transportation safety should also be retained, with greater attention to the safety of non-drivers threatened by transportation related accidents. To protect America's aesthetic resources, ISTEA's Scenic Byways program should be continued, and the federal Highway Beautification Act should be strengthened.

New initiatives should be undertaken to address the environmental effects of transportation in a comprehensive way, and to help communities integrate their land use and transportation planning efforts. These initiatives should include funding to cover the incremental cost of replacing old diesel buses with new, clean fuel buses, and should begin to reverse the loss of wetlands that has resulted from 40 years of road building and sprawl development.

V. Assuring Accountability.

ISTEA's basic guarantees of accountability -- requirements for fiscally constrained planning, public participation, and guaranteed funding for metropolitan areas -- should be preserved. ISTEA's list of planning factors for states and metropolitan areas should be simplified and focused on measuring performance toward agreed upon goals. Metropolitan Planning Organizations (MPOs) should continue to be involved in decision making in partnership with states, and the rules that govern them should be adjusted to assure that they fairly represent the population of metropolitan areas. Small metropolitan areas and rural communities should be allowed a greater voice in decision making.

Building on ISTEA's Successes

As a broad based and diverse coalition -- ranging from state and local officials like myself to environmentalists and civil rights activists and from corporations to labor and consumer groups, STPP's members can't agree upon everything. When we began to sit down together last year to discuss the need to develop policy recommendations for transportation into the next century, it wasn't at all clear that we could agree on whether the ISTEA innovation had been a success. For the first time, environmentalists and others in the STPP community had approached federal transportation legislation with the idea that transportation spending could contribute to a better environment and a more equitable society as it improved mobility. Always before, the approach had been one of finding legislative tools to mitigate the adverse consequences of transportation projects. ISTEA's premise was that with proper planning and public involvement, transportation could contribute to sustainability. By and large, the consensus that emerged was that the ISTEA premise was a sound one and that ISTEA was beginning to work. As we turned our attention to the future, then, our starting point was 1991's emphasis on transportation choice, fiscal restraint and state and local control. Our recommendations seek to build on ISTEA and to recognize new realities for the 21st Century -- new environmental challenges, the challenge of moving from welfare to work, and the need to protect our massive Interstate investment. Our coalition's endorsement of these principles represents the broad support an extremely diverse set of groups and we want to offer our continuing support to you throughout the process of developing the ISTEA reauthorization.

Mr. Chairman, thank you again for your attention and courtesy. I am happy to answer any questions you or other members of the subcommittee may have.