Beth Osborne was deputy assistant secretary for policy, and then acting assistant secretary, at the U.S. Department of Transportation from 2009 until March, when she joined Transportation for America.
Members of Congress love to talk about local control. And with good reason: American voters tell pollsters over and over again that they trust the elected officials closest to them more than any others.
Local communities do a good job channeling limited federal funds into small-scale, big-impact projects like this streetscape project in Bayonne, New Jersey. Photo: TrADE
Not only that, but most Americans live in cities, towns and suburbs, with 85 percent in metropolitan areas, according to recent census estimates. And 90 percent of gross domestic product — the economy — is generated in those places.
So why is rhetoric so far from reality when it comes to transportation funding?
When the federal transportation program was up for renewal two years ago, members of Congress from both parties repeatedly invoked “local control” as a goal. But the resulting law, MAP-21, actually reduced local latitude over transportation spending.
Pots of money that had been available to fix local bridges, provide alternatives to congested corridors, make better connections to transit or address safety issues for kids on their way to school — as just a few examples — were consolidated and shrunk. When all was said and done, local communities had access to less than 15 percent of the money in the bill. Metropolitan areas over 200,000 — where 65 percent of Americans live — got only 8 percent, according to federal data.
As a result, the one small pot of discretionary money available to local communities — the TIGER program — has been wildly oversubscribed, as I saw firsthand as one of the leaders at the U.S. DOT overseeing the program from 2009 until last March.
My time at DOT taught me two big lessons: First, the innovative solutions are coming from locals. And second, they have nowhere near enough resources to implement them.
Across the country, communities and regions are developing forward-looking plans to squeeze efficiencies out of transportation networks expected to move growing numbers of cars, pedestrians, transit riders, bicycles and freight. They are struggling to fund unmet repair needs. They worry that the economic potential they see will evaporate unless they can invest in a high-quality transportation network.
That’s why the bipartisan Innovation in Surface Transportation Act (HR 4726) is so important. The bill, introduced by Representatives Rodney Davis (R-Illinois) and Dina Titus (D-Nevada), would make good on the MAP-21 authors’ promise of more local control by reserving a share of each state’s federal dollars for grants to local entities. It would ensure that at least an additional $5 billion of the roughly $50 billion sent to states each year will be used to support local priorities.
Grants would be awarded by a committee of state and local officials along with a range of stakeholders, based on the strength of the proposal: Will the project yield a strong return on investment? Does it improve safety and reliability? Does the community have its own funds committed to the plan?