Testimony of Judith Espinosa
on behalf of the
Surface Transportation Policy Project
Senate Environment and Public Works Committee
Hearing on Transportation Planning and Smart Growth
May 15, 2002
Mr. Chairman, I am Judith Espinosa, Director of the Alliance for Transportation Research Institute at the University of New Mexico. I appear today on behalf of the Surface Transportation Policy Project (STPP) where I serve as a Member of the Board of Directors. I would like to thank you, Mr. Chairman, and the Members of this Committee for inviting me to testify and for structuring your hearings so that you may hear from a diverse representation of views on reauthorization of TEA 21.
The STPP coalition has taken an active role in the debate on federal transportation policy since its inception in 1990, helping provide policy support for what became ISTEA and later TEA-21.
As we begin the debate on the renewal of TEA-21, I wanted to describe briefly STPP’s process for identifing specific recommendations to support further progress on a national transportation reform agenda. We have embarked on a broad national outreach effort, called the Alliance for a New Transportation Charter (ANTC), to support consensus proposals, based on input from hundreds of national, regional and local organizations as well as state and local elected leaders. To support this, our Charter focuses on seeking reforms in the following key areas: 1) enhancing health, safety and security; 2) conserving energy and enhancing the environment; 3) promoting social equity and livable communities; and 4) advancing economic prosperity. STPP’s recommendations on reauthorization will reflect our Charter’s focus areas and a broad perspective on improvements to current law as made by those groups and organizations that advocate the principles in the Charter.
I would like to offer a few observations to guide this panel’s efforts as you prepare to renew TEA-21 next year. First, the STPP coalition strongly believes that the basic structure of the TEA-21 law is fundamentally sound and should be preserved. It is our belief that transportation policy in America has been fundamentally reshaped as a result of the 1991 ISTEA law. If there is a single shortcoming, it is that the law has not been fully implemented. As a result, we do not see the federal, state and local partnership developed to the point where it is promoting the full intent of ISTEA and TEA 21. In short, despite much progress, we have failed to fully capitalize on the many opportunities this law has intended to make available to our states, regions and communities. We see renewal of TEA-21 as another step in the continuum of the transportation reform process that will span longer than simply the last decade.
In December, STPP along with other key partners celebrated “Ten Years of Progress” at a special event where we had an opportunity to take stock of the many transportation changes that the ISTEA legislation fostered. In celebrating this record of progress, we were particularly pleased to recognize Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan with a special award, named after the late Senator John H. Chafee. Senators Chafee and Moynihan were longstanding members of this panel whose efforts helped this panel, the Senate and the Congress move forward on a national transportation policy reform agenda.
What particularly impresses me, a person who has worked extensively with local and regional transportation advocates, is the depth of the public’s awareness about the role of transportation infrastructure investment and how they see its power to influence their lives, their neighborhoods, and their communities within the context of their broader regions and states. ISTEA and TEA-21 have stimulated the public’s appetite for transportation improvements that offer more choice and balance in their transportation options and that add value to their lives and to their communities. At the same time, I would note that implementation of the law has been a struggle in many places and it is certain that the law has not been implemented equitably across states and within areas of individual states. We believe that U.S. DOT and its modal agencies can now provide renewed leadership to ensure the public they are engaged in the full implementation of this law. States, MPOs and local governments must likewise renew their stewardship to improvements in implementation.
To frame some of my perspectives on the issues before the panel today – “Transportation Planning and Smart Growth” – I have highlighted some key policy developments of the last ten years, suggesting areas for further review as this Committee crafts legislation renewing TEA-21.
· ADA: ISTEA was crafted immediately following the enactment of the Americans with Disabilities Act. While we have not seen a level of progress in implementing this law relative to the transportation sector, we now know and have come to appreciate that efforts to address the mobility needs of persons with disabilities can simultaneously deliver broader societal benefits, be it increased emphasis on pedestrian safety benefiting children, seniors and the broader public or a stronger emphasis on bicycle/pedestrian infrastructure that anticipates the aging of our nation’s population and the market push toward investment in existing places.
· Brownfields: When ISTEA was being developed, its authors recognized the potential of underdeveloped or underutilized lands in proximity to major highway, rail and port infrastructures and their desirability for reuse. No one could have anticipated the national debate that would follow on the reuse of vacant lands. This debate recently culminated in the enactment of Public Law 107-118. Mr. Chairman, Senator Chafee and others on this panel who played such an important role in moving this legislation forward after years of disagreement, we thank you. A broad national commitment to recycling America’s land is an important policy thrust and we encourage you to look for additional ways in the TEA-21 renewal bill to prompt broader reuse – both planning and investment policies – of these many thousands of brownfields throughout the nation. We see this focus on the reclamation of brownfields and others vacant lands as a significant new community development priority.
· Census: The 2000 Census challenges the upcoming debate on TEA-21 renewal in a number of ways. It underscores the need to accelerate our policy efforts to prepare for the aging of the nation’s population. At a recent Committee hearing, we learned that the demographics of Florida, which were once thought to be unique to that state, will be found in other states in the near future. We also see that, as the nation is getting older, there is also a boomlet of the very young, giving rise to initiatives, like Safe Routes to School and others, which focus transportation dollars on facility improvements to offer more protection for our most vulnerable. The new Census also shows us the changing racial composition of our cities, suburbs and rural areas as a result of immigration and other trends of the last decade. This calls attention to the need to further strengthen our efforts on environmental justice and Title VI of the Civil Rights Act. Finally, we continue to see changes in the population and land areas of our nation’s urbanized areas. A recent DOT notice shows that there will 61 new MPOs, with many others whose boundaries are being redrawn and in other cases urbanized areas will be renamed. We see the new Census data as informing our policy reform discussions on TEA-21 renewal just as the 1990 Census helped support review of the federal transportation law that became ISTEA in 1991. Specifically on the MPO issues, this new data should prompt us to review the range of issues surrounding the MPO structures of current law to modernize these agencies, reforms that were not pursued in TEA-21 or ISTEA. The 2000 Census, along with the many new challenges and expectations now before MPOs, necessitates a new look at how MPOs are funded, structured and supported.
· Clean Air: Like ADA, ISTEA followed the enactment of amendments to the Clean Air Act. At that time, the relationship between transportation sector investments and clean air objectives was not fully understood. Since that time, we have come to realize that attainment of clean air standards would prove more difficult than expected, even with the commitment of new resources under ISTEA and its Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality (CMAQ) program. We now understand that mobile sources would become more dominant, not less, as the key determinant for most regional efforts to achieve attainment with national standards. More recently, the Supreme Court’s decision affirming EPA’s stance on the need to move forward with new air standards further amplifies the need to preserve, and further expand our resource commitments here, be it an expanded CMAQ program or other means to further local efforts to achieve attainment of national air quality standards.
· Environmental Justice: Over the last ten years, we have seen the emergence of a broad movement to examine the linkages between social justice and our public investment decisions. ISTEA with its emphasis on “early and continuous” public involvement, and its broader data collection and research efforts, opened up the public dialogue on many social equity concerns which too often were overlooked or ill-informed in transportation decision-making. This is a significant area of public debate that continues to challenge our planning and other processes under TEA-21 to ensure that EJ concerns are addressed in a much more systematic manner. Research is needed, data systems must be updated and further capacity should be built at the state and MPO level if we are to effectively address the difficult challenges in this area. I am pleased to have been recently appointed by EPA Administrator Whitman to serve on the National Environmental Justice Advisory Council (NEJAC) to work with other interested parties to assist federal agencies in efforts which relate to environmental justice. I would be pleased to provide any support to this Committee’s review of these issues that are very much a part of our national views on transportation equity.
· Metropolitan Economics: This Committee previously has heard testimony from the mayors and others on the importance of the nation’s metropolitan economies in driving the economic prosperity of this nation. This is new data that wasn’t available prior to ISTEA. We know that these areas account for a disproportionate share of U.S. economic output. These economic studies also project that the nation’s 300+ metropolitan areas, largely represented by MPOs under the TEA-21 law, will warehouse virtually all of the key sectors – high technology and financial and business services – that will drive the nation’s future economic output. As we look at the issues of planning and smart growth, improvements to TEA-21 are crucial in ensuring the broader health and vitality of these economic engines. Among the issues that we would ask the Committee to examine is the relative funding commitment to these areas. For example, the current law provides certainty to only the largest MPOs, those serving areas of 200,000 or more in population and representing about 54 percent of the nation’s population. And, they are only certain that about 6 cents of every dollar (i.e. STP suballocated funds) will be made available each year from TEA-21, a modest commitment to areas that collectively account for a substantial share of the nation’s economic output, a large majority of all transit use, aviation passengers and port tonnage as well as critical elements of the nation’s freight rail and passenger rail capacities. We suggest that increased local control over TEA-21 funds be seriously considered in the new law.
· Rural Economies: In contrast to metropolitan areas, we know that rural areas face a whole set of other challenges. In the last decade, we continue to see the erosion of rural economies despite many transportation infrastructure upgrades to state highway facilities. At the same time, these areas are impacted by the sustained urbanization of our metropolitan areas, which push outward and place enormous pressure on rural communities and land resources. More recently, we have seen new information that documents the significant safety needs of our rural road systems. We have looked at data that shows that there has been a sustained investment in rural areas within many states, investments that are generally disproportionate to the population of these areas. There is a need to rethink the investment patterns in our rural areas and look at alternatives, which will improve safety, promote sustained economic advancements, and give people choices for travel. Many state highway investments in these areas are pursued in the name of economic development or safety but many may simply be missing the mark.
We have seen great success with a relatively small investment that has been made in the National Scenic Byways Program. Here is a program that creates a strong linkage among rural communities along a large corridor, creating an opportunity to leverage other public resources and capturing new private sector investment in areas that would otherwise have been overlooked. We have seen how modest commitments of Transportation Enhancement funds have stimulated tourism and other economic activity through improvements to main streets, trails, historic train stations and other projects. Many of these same projects could be funded with state STP funds but, instead, are usually committed to other investments in state highway facilities.
There has been reluctance by many states to commit safety funds to areas where signage, markings and shoulders would make a difference at much less cost. In my state, our rural agencies, known as rural planning organizations or RPOs, have worked hard to plan and develop a transportation investment agenda for their areas utilizing a broad scope of public input. Their recommendations and plans are largely ignored by our state’s transportation department or set aside as a low priority agenda. When these rural planning organizations are viewed as advisory only, true regional transportation planning becomes flawed. To have effective planning, there has to be a connection between resources and the local areas that are planning and seeking the improvements. In New Mexico, our RPOs plan projects but never will receive any resources to implement them.
Failure to implement TEA-21 and use its flexibilities, we are talking about the many opportunities that are lost when state transportation officials ignore the potential of these more modest projects and the impetus they can provide in stimulating rural economies. Likewise, U.S. DOT must become more aggressive in addressing rural transportation planning needs. Despite directives in TEA-21 to address rural planning issues, U.S. DOT regulations have yet to be issued.
· Stewardship Movement: Increasingly, we see that ISTEA’s reforms have played a significant role in helping revive an interest in stewardship of our systems, with the public and state and local elected leaders engaged in trying to look at transportation in a more comprehensive manner. At its core, ISTEA’s transportation planning process was the first effort at ensuring that transportation investments are considered in a multi-disciplinary manner, considering impacts on air quality, communities, energy use, and so on. As we approach TEA-21 renewal, this engagement of the public and elected leaders envisions a broader stewardship agenda, be it habitat protection, biodiversity, air and water quality, or the preservation of cultural, historic and land resources. We see this move toward stewardship as a very positive development, but we must ensure that the resource commitments are there to move it forward. Our coalition is now reviewing how an environmental stewardship initiative could support this broader vision.
· Taxpayer Engagement: ISTEA was designed to encourage a broader public discourse on transportation investment. This week The Washington Post is calling for reader ideas on “things that could be done quickly and cheaply to alleviate traffic congestion.” We now see a level of engagement of the taxpayer in this debate which is unprecedented. Whether you accept the rubric of smart growth or smart planning, these issues resonate with taxpayers who are increasingly pressing public decision-makers to get more return from their public investments, particularly return from existing investments. The public now understands that the outward development of their regions, and the road improvements that are needed to develop these outlying areas, are stressing public capital resources and diminishing what is available to places where most of them now live and work. In rural areas, there is a growing recognition that funds are generally available for major new state highway projects, but not for other transportation needs. The message from the public increasingly is that they want a better return on the use of their tax dollars, not just moving money out to undeveloped or underdeveloped areas. This is real and is growing broadly throughout the nation. The public’s renewed appreciation of these issues is challenging our planning processes which historically have not accounted for an engaged public, many of whom may not always participate in each step of the process but certainly are increasingly aware of and vocal about the outcomes.
· Transit Use: The growth in transit use, particularly in later part of the ISTEA decade, reversed a multi-decade decline in public transportation. In fact, over the last five years, transit use has grown at about twice the rate of auto use (as measured by VMT), with transit trips today reaching levels not achieved since 1960. In the wake of ISTEA and its emphasis on local decision-making, we have seen a dramatic increase in demand for transit investment, particularly rail transit, in the nation’s larger urban areas. When local areas are empowered to shape future investment plans for their regions, it is clear that local areas are often making different decisions and ones that emphasize broader transportation choices for their regions. There has been a virtual explosion in demand for rail transit, for example, since MPOs were empowered to share future transportation decisions for their regions.
It is interesting to note that of the top 50 metropolitan areas, which represent a substantial share of the nation’s economy and population, 48 of these areas are planning new rail transit projects, expanding existing rail systems or constructing new rail systems. The emergence of rail transit and the broader push for increased transit investment overall is an important development as we look to renewal of TEA-21.
· Water Quality: During the last ten years, we have a better understanding of the implications of the “Water Quality Act of 1987” and its emphasis to move beyond point sources to control of urban runoff through municipal and other stormwater discharges. Today, hundreds of communities hold permits, requiring water quality monitoring, best management practices and even structural improvements. We have assembled a substantial record that documents how highway runoff and other transportation-related uses are contributing to the degradation of our nation’s water quality. When ISTEA was first enacted, stormwater regulatory efforts were in their infancy, which is certainly not the case today. We see this as a substantial new development that should be more fully considered as the TEA-21 renewal moves forward, both in the planning process and in the allocation of resources.
· Welfare Reform: The 1996 welfare reform legislation was particularly important in reminding transportation professionals and system operators that existing planning efforts did not fully account for the new demands of a large number of Americans who would be making the transition from welfare to work. In TEA-21, the Job Access and Reverse Commute (JARC) program followed immediately in the wake of the welfare reform legislation, helping transit and other providers fill the many gaps resulting from the spatial mismatch of workers and job centers. This program was also deployed to help workers in rural areas get to jobs in other parts of their region. This area will continue to challenge us to use JARC funds and find other resources under TEA-21 to further refine these strategies, be it adding routes where transit services are now offered, supporting new services in areas where services are unavailable, or incentives to plan and support the location of training and support services at key transit and transportation facilities. We see the renewal of the TANF law this year as one part of a broader effort to coordinate and establish new linkages between TEA-21 and TANF to further the transition of thousands of Americans from welfare to work.
· 9/11: Finally, I would note that we closed out the ISTEA decade with the catastrophic events of September 11. We are still grappling with the implications of this attack and its subsequent threats, with most of the federal policy efforts focused on redesigning our aviation and port security capabilities. We do know that the surface transportation systems of New York and Washington, DC were diversified to a level that allowed them to absorb these shocks without further disruption to these major regional economies and the broader U.S. economy. In fact, New York and Washington are the top two rail transit systems in the nation and are also linked to the nation’s only high-speed passenger rail corridor. We see the need to carefully consider how we can use available transportation resources to further diversify our transportation systems. With this disruption to the nation’s aviation system and subsequent realignments in service, there is a compelling case to be made for moving swiftly on expanding the nation’s intercity passenger rail capacities, providing more economic stability over the longer term and providing intercity rail options to communities, some of which have lost or have reduced air service.
Specific Recommendations on Planning and Smart Growth
As I noted in the opening of my statement, STPP’s coalition partners are now developing a detailed set of recommendations on TEA-21 renewal that we will share these with the Committee at a later date. I do, however, offer several suggestions on areas where STPP has previously recommended action or where our coalition has identified initial recommendations.
Under current law, MPOs serving areas of 50,000 – 200,000 have no idea from year to year what funds will be made available to their areas, a circumstance that is generally shared with rural areas of the states. Among the immediate reforms that would increase certainty to selected local areas is change how funds are delivered through the Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality program. We would urge that CMAQ funding be proportionately obligated and then suballocated (based on the formula that delivers funds to the states in the first instance) to non-attainment and maintenance areas so they can more effectively budget funding for air quality projects.
Among the existing budget tools in TEA-21, we strongly support the position of AMPO and others about the need to preserve the fiscal constraint provisions of current law. On a related issue, we were disappointed that there was no apparent commitment to implement current provisions on cooperative revenue forecasting which were intended to bring MPOs together with their state transportation departments and transit providers to develop shared estimates of future TEA-21 funding. This is about the enhancing the ability of the MPO to plan and budget beyond a one-year horizon. By contrast, the funding guarantees of the TEA-21 delivered considerable funding certainty to the states, allowing state transportation departments to readily forecast their revenue flow over the six-year period of the law.
On a related issue, STPP will be recommending a new initiative to focus financial and other resources to help develop broader state and MPO capacity for environmental stewardship. We are concerned that the continuing calls for environmental streamlining have overshadowed the real and substantial needs that now exist for capacity-building within state transportation departments and MPOs to reasonably address the many environmental challenges before them. We believe that investing in stewardship is where we should be focusing our attention if we are serious about improving the pace and quality of environmental reviews. It is our hope that we could share these recommendations with you at your upcoming hearing on this subject.
Another example of a new challenge is the new research that documents the growing epidemic of obesity, particularly among America’s youth, and other health concerns like rising rates of diabetes, which are particularly linked to lack of exercise and fitness. At the same time, we have developed a transportation infrastructure that too often frustrates pedestrian activities and even discourages unplanned pedestrian trips as we continue to design systems that focus on auto trips and auto dependency. This is an area where MPOs and state planning efforts need to lead by taking additional steps to help reengineer our transportation systems in ways that promote non-motorized travel, principally pedestrian activities, that can provide new avenues to combat these negative health trends over the longer term.
We know that there is a need to modernize the models that are used to support state and MPO planning efforts. A new idea is to look for ways to replace some of our modeling structures with visioning exercises that, through a broadly participatory process, allows communities to decide for themselves how they want to design their own communities and then how to construct transportation facilities that serve these goals. In Chicago, planners are already using a modified version of the SimCity computer game to look at development and transportation to simulate a different future. There are some modest investments that could be supported under TEA-21 that could facilitate such efforts.
A broader agenda on smart growth will be among the areas that the STPP coalition members will be bringing back to the Committee as you continue your deliberations on TEA-21 renewal.
Mr. Chairman, let me conclude by emphasizing that democracy means paying attention. ISTEA and TEA-21 provide the policy framework for developing transportation systems serve our nation’s need for access and mobility, while also promoting community health, wealth and quality of life. But we must pay attention to the details, promoting the means that make our transportation agencies accountable, transparent and participatory.
I thank you, Mr. Chairman, and Member of the Committee for this opportunity to share the views of STPP on these important issues.