The passage of ISTEA in 1991 was a significant victory for Narragansett Bay and the quality of life for this region. The transportation policies of the past, and the road-building subsidies that went with those policies, furthered a sprawling pattern of development that has increased water and air pollution, helped enable the wholesale disinvestment in our urban areas and ruined the rural character of much of the Narragansett Bay watershed. ISTEA offered a new vision - a new promise for the development and maintenance of this region's surface transportation system.
Last weekend Save The Bay cosponsored with the Rhode Island Historic Preservation Commission and the Providence Foundation (a leading business organization) a conference called Growing Smart and Saving Place. The Conference assembled over 700 members of the Rhode Island community to discuss how we can better protect our cities and towns from suburban sprawl's ravaging effect on the character of our communities and our natural resources. There were numerous panels and discussions on the importance of transportation planning and management. These were aimed at informing citizens about what we must do if we are going to achieve the promise of ISTEA. For ISTEA represents an important paradigm shift - but it a shift that is far from complete.
At the Growing Smart/Saving Place Conference we learned just how far short we have fallen on ISTEA implementation. Citizens all over the watershed are still angry and frustrated at RIDOT. They are frustrated that the spending of enhancement dollars and environmentally directed demonstration dollars have lagged behind other priorities at DOT. And they are especially frustrated that there has been little change in the way the public is afforded the opportunity to input transportation decisions. The idea of reaching beyond the politics of local government and really listening to the civic voices that work for healthy communities year in and year out, is an idea that the Rhode Island Department of Transportation just does not want to embrace and our communities are suffering for it.
We have not fulfilled the promise of ISTEA for one major reason. At Save The Bay, we call it the dinosaur effect. The Rhode Island DOT was built to do one thing - build and supposedly maintain roads. In their never-ending effort to placate local political leaders, DOT road engineers have designed many more roads for Rhode Island than will ever be built. That's not to say they won't continue to try.
ISTEA demands much more of the transportation planning infrastructure than the old highway bill did. And the RIDOT was not equipped to meet the ISTEA challenge. There are several reasons why.
First was a lack of know-how. ISTEA demanded a new kind of thinking and attitude. Essentially the RIDOT organization did not want to go through the hard work of reexamining its mission, skills and culture. Like a dinosaur, the DOT was not willing or equipped to deal with the change in climate.
Even if RIDOT has wanted to make change, State funding cuts may have made it impossible. The State of Rhode Island has been cutting discretionary spending to agencies like DOT and the Department of Environmental Management for over five years. On a single year basis, five percent may not be much. Make that cut for five years running, and add inflationary costs and the impact is huge.
But most importantly we must remember that the DOT of 1991, and its constituency, was deeply vested in the road building paradigm. The new thinking and new tasks demanded of the institution by the ISTEA paradigm needs more time to implement. The worse thing that could happen now would be to retreat from the ISTEA vision and in effect say "never mind". That would amount to capitulation to the pro-road forces that love strip malls and communities without side walks. These are the forces that have helped segregate our communities by income and have left our cities wondering where their tax base went.
Looking ahead, we must stay on course with the reauthorization of ISTEA. The welfare of our communities and Narragansett Bay depend on it. Enhancement funding and congestion mitigation funding should be increased, not eliminated as some have suggested. This type of funding has helped remedy the negative impact that too much road building has had on our communities.
A greatly improved ISTEA would build in incentives that would discourage sprawling patterns of development. By taking this bold step the federal government could assert that while land use management is a local responsibility, it is not in the Country's interest to further highly inefficient patterns of development that increase dependence on foreign energy resources, and are very expensive to maintain and rebuild. As we learned at our Growing Smart/Saving Place Conference, ultimately, sprawl makes taxes go up and the quality of life go down. That's not good for the environment or the economy.
An improved ISTEA would also explicitly connect transportation to water pollution. It could do it by mandating that transportation decision makers strive to prevent water pollution in their planning and management decisions and make it federal policy that runoff pollution firstly be avoided and secondly be minimized to the maximum extent that is practical.
But there is one more thing that ISTEA must continue to do. It must fund our surface transportation funding system solely based on need. It is my understanding some political leaders are proposing that funding should be allocated based on how much each state has collected in gas taxes. I am a Steering Committee Member for the Enterprize For the Environment. E4E, as it is commonly called, is an initiative chaired by the esteemed first Administrator of EPA, William Ruckelshaus. Industry, environment and governmental leaders have come together to discuss how the United State's approach to environmental protection could be improved and made more user friendly. The E4E stakeholders have agreed that the Country should work to align economic incentives and environmentally desirable behaviors so that a cleaner and healthy environment can be achieved with less regulation. To base transportation funding allocation decisions, in any part, on gasoline consumption would be a step in the wrong direction. For in effect, states and localities would be financially rewarded for building automobile based transportation infrastructure, which is, as I have already stated, a sure-fire way to increase taxes and pollute the environment. State should be rewarded for building more efficient ways of moving people and freight, not penalized.
I want to close my testimony reiterating Save The Bay's wholehearted support for ISTEA and especially for the promise it holds. More time is needed to reform the transportation planning processes and the thinking of the people that are responsible for those processes. As an advocate for Narragansett Bay, this region's most important resource, which has suffered greatly from past transportation decisions, I am committed to see this reform through. Please do everything you can to afford me, and other Rhode Islanders that care deeply about their communities, the continued opportunity to carry this mission forward.