THE HONORABLE CHRIS HART
HILLSBOROUGH COUNTY, FLORIDA
ON BEHALF OF THE NATIONAL ASSOCIATION OF COUNTIES
for America’s Transportation Future
THE REAUTHORIZATION OF
THE TRANSPORTATION EQUITY ACT FOR THE 21ST CENTURY
SENATE COMMITTEE ON ENVIRONMENT AND PUBLIC WORKS
JANUARY 24, 2002
Good morning Mr. Chairman and members of the committee, I am Commissioner Chris Hart, County Commissioner of Hillsborough County, Florida. Today I am representing the National Association of Counties (NACo) where I serve as Chairman of its Transportation Steering Committee. On behalf of NACo, I want to thank the committee for inviting me to appear before you on the topic of TEA-21 reauthorization. I am delighted to share this panel with West Virginia’s Governor Wise, Mayor Clavelle of Burlington, Vermont, and Mayor Coles of Boise, Idaho. My county seat is in Tampa, where I directly represent over 1 million citizens on the central West Coast of Florida. It is an urban center of seven counties with over 3.5 million people. It is also the economic engine of the Tampa Bay region, in great measure because of our focus on improving the transportation network, and our major international air and seaports that connect us to the global economy. On a lighter note Senators, if you haven’t had a call for the head coach position of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, rest assured you will----everyone else has!
NACo has a broad interest in transportation policy. NACo has been very active over the past 50 years in assisting Congress in developing legislation that benefits our member counties, as well as our partners in the cities and states. Much of our focus has been on the highway program for the simple reason that counties own 44% of the nation’s highway mileage and 45% of the nation’s bridges. With 3,066 counties in our vast nation, NACo's membership is diverse. It’s in America’s thousand urban counties where both economic and population growth is occurring. Metropolitan counties, or in urban centers like my home on Tampa Bay, account for 84 percent of the gross domestic product, and have over 125 million people living in just 100 of the most populated counties. Strong economic growth will occur only with a sound transportation system. Of course, the downside of that growth has been increasing traffic congestion, which at times threatens our quality of life and deprives citizens of their ability to move around in a safe and efficient manner. Conversely, there are two thousand rural counties with a dwindling tax base that must maintain and improve their highway and bridge systems if they are just to remain competitive in today’s economy and retain their current population.
TEA-21 and its predecessor, ISTEA, have been very helpful to our members and to our nation as a whole. There is little doubt in my mind that these programs have contributed to the overall economic growth that our nation experienced in the last decade. ISTEA, in 1991, began a trend to increase the federal investment in the highway program, and TEA-21 provided a 40 percent boost. The increase was needed and we have seen the benefits. For example, last year the State of Florida appropriated over $1 billion for a combination of improvements to the local, state, and federal transportation system in the Tampa Bay region. This was a direct result of increased funding because of TEA-21. The leadership of NACo supported the funding increase for transportation in TEA-21, and fought hard to support the financing changes in TEA-21 that made this level of spending possible. It would be an economic disaster if Congress were to eliminate the firewall established in TEA-21 or began to use the Highway Trust Fund to either finance other programs or mask the deficit. Mr. Chairman and members of the committee, the financing decisions made in 1998 were the right ones!
Let me also add that I also believe that our highway infrastructure performed well on September 11 and in its aftermath. We should all remember that the federal highway program was begun to ensure our nation’s defense. While the tragic events of last September were never anticipated, the security function of our highway and bridge system worked. When NACo’s Homeland Security Task Force met for the first time in October, it was Secretary of Transportation Noman Mineta, along with Governor Tom Ridge, that the task force wanted to hear from.
Aside from funding, the key change in highway legislation over the last ten years has been the creation of a flexible program that has relied on greater input from local elected government officials. The result has been better planning, better decision making on project selection, and better projects. It is likely that the federal government will continue to spend substantial federal resources each year on highways and bridges, and that makes it essential that both local and state government leaders sit together at the table when decisions are made. The reauthorization of TEA-21 should continue and accelerate that partnership. ISTEA required cooperative decision making through the metropolitan planning organization (MPO) process on how surface transportation program funds, the most flexible category, were to be spent. TEA-21 continued that requirement; and that legislation also called for cooperation and consultation between state and local decision-makers in other federal highway programs. TEA-21 expanded this to rural areas and statutorily called for a consultation process in each state for obtaining rural local officials input in the statewide transportation plan. I must add that while some states have a process and the Federal Highway Administration did issue guidance on this change to its field offices, the US Department of Transportation has yet to issue final regulations on rural planning requirements.
Last fall, I established NACo’s TEA-21 Reauthorization Task Force under the able leadership of my colleague Commissioner Glen Whitley from Tarrant County, Texas. Mr. Chairman, he and our staff have been diligent in their efforts, have met several times with members throughout our country, and are now in the process of finalizing NACo’s recommendations for TEA-21 reauthorization. However, I am confident that I can state without reservation that environmental streamlining will be a top issue for our members. Also, I want to be very clear that we will not be calling for the repeal of any of our nation’s environmental protection laws. Rather, we will be recommending that the reauthorization include provisions that ensure projects are completed in a timely and efficient manner, and the delays in the current system that unnecessarily slow down projects are eliminated! Simply put, Mr. Chairman and committee members, we are asking for a concurrent process, rather than an uncoordinated, sequential one. In the broadest sense, this means that we need to get all the players in a project involved at the outset. This means the local elected officials, state DOTs and its other regulatory officials, all federal agencies having a role to play, as well as the environmental community, and most especially, the affected citizens. No one should be ignored, and no federal agency should be allowed to operate independently of the other participants. In my State of Florida, for instance, this effort is a work-in-progress, but it will not be successful without collaboration from the federal government.
Congestion will be another key policy issue that Congress must address in the reauthorization. Urban counties, their citizens, tourists, and our commerce are strangling on congestion. Time, money, and productivity are all lost when commerce, the American commuter and tourist are stuck in traffic. There is no one solution, except that we must apply common sense to the challenge of congestion. Solutions must be found through very close state-local cooperation. Congestion occurs on county highways, not just on the state networks. We must remember that we have a system of highways, and when one part of the system breaks down, the others are affected too. Any new legislation should provide for those highways and streets we have now, to ensure they are properly maintained, so that they can move traffic safely. We must invest more money in highways to guarantee that our current system is maximized. We know that as much as 50 per cent of congestion occurs due to breakdowns and accidents on the roadways. Therefore, we must be smart enough to establish simple, efficient methods for getting these incidents resolved quickly. Here again, federal agencies and their resources can partner with local and state government to save time, money, and lives. We need to have systems and procedures in place that include all the various agencies involved in incident management; from the highway departments, police, fire/rescue, to EMS and wrecker services, all communicating with one another. We can do better. Let me illustrate. How many times have you seen a breakdown or accident in one lane of traffic, with emergency vehicles taking up the other lane or lanes, and if we’re really lucky, perhaps we are able to pass after an hour or so in morning and evening rush hour traffic. Systems and procedures for incident management could go a long way toward relieving congestion. Another key to relieving congestion and moving traffic is signalization. We have all been on highways where the signals are coordinated and traffic flows. We have also been on roads where we are stopping at every red light. Many local governments need additional resources to modernize traffic signals. The good news is that electronic signals, and now Intelligent Transportation Systems, or ITS as it’s commonly called, are giving us an 8 to 1 return on our investment as compared to other alternatives. By the way, what we don’t need are automatic signs that say “congestion ahead” when we are already caught in traffic, or where there are no alternative routes.
Now, Mr. Chairman, I would finish my remarks by addressing a major concern we all share, rural roads. Rural roads are in need of substantial federal investment. Safety is the primary reason. According to a US General Accounting Office report in July 2001, rural local roads had the highest rate of fatalities per vehicle mile traveled of all types of roadways—over six times that of urban interstates. In 1999, over 25,000 fatalities occurred on rural roads across the U.S.; and that figure was 2.5 times greater than the fatality rate from accidents on urban highways in areas like Las Vegas, Miami, St. Louis, and Cleveland. If Congress wants to reduce auto fatalities, there is no better investment than on roads in rural counties. Because rural roads are the most dangerous roads in America, and are the most costly in human lives, NACo will be proposing a new program to address rural road safety in the coming months. Rest assured, Mr. Chairman, that we would work closely with your committee in developing it.
Mr. Chairman, this concludes my testimony. I thank you and the committee for the opportunity to be here today, and would be pleased to answer your questions.
* NACo is the only national
organization representing county government in the United States. Through its membership, urban, suburban and
rural counties join together to build effective, responsive county government. The goals of the organization are to: improve county government; serve as the
national spokesman for county government; serve as a liaison between the
nation’s counties and other levels of government; achieve public understanding
of the role of counties in the federal system..