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U.S. Department of Transportation U.S. Department of Transportation Icon United States Department of Transportation United States Department of Transportation

Funding Constraints Fuel New Paradigms in Federal Transportation Policy

Friday, August 15, 2014

"We are in a new environment…a time of constraint certainly at the fiscal level…that is driving changes in policy perspective," said Emil Frankel, a visiting scholar at the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington, D.C., and a former Assistant Secretary for Transportation Policy of the U.S. Department of Transportation.

Frankel shared his insight on the significant reforms emerging from last year's surface transportation reauthorization, Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act (MAP-21), and future trends, at a recent Straight from the Source lecture at Volpe, The National Transportation System Center.

Emil Frankel"We are actually in a period of change, despite the stagnation in federal funding," Frankel explained. "It's a period of change in identifying the…extent of the federal role in surface transportation and also the character and nature of it. Changes in national transportation policy are occurring; though they are incremental..."

Frankel pointed to the key elements of the ongoing paradigm shift in federal transportation policy:

  • An increasing role for states and localities in transportation, despite their own budget challenges
  • A gradual shift away from user-based support for investment in transportation infrastructure
  • MAP-21's program consolidation and promotion of performance management principles
  • A steady shift from federal funding to federal financing, programs that provide federal credit assistance such as direct loans or standby lines of credit to finance transportation projects

Frankel observed that the public seems unwilling to invest at a federal level to restore the nation's so-called "crumbling infrastructure," yet noted there is a broad acknowledgment it is aging, deteriorating, and in urban areas severely congested. The American public accepts these conditions "in lieu of supporting higher federal gasoline taxes or new kinds of user fees to invest in these facilities." Frankel said there is more success at the state and metropolitan levels in obtaining revenue increases, because people can connect to what they see or believe will be implemented. This is hard to do at the federal level.

Frankel outlined how to meet these pressing transportation challenges:

  • Clearly define the federal role in surface transportation
  • Accept that transportation infrastructure funding is an investment in long-term economic growth
  • Make sure investment sources are long term and sustainable
  • Resolve investment issues impacting transportation spending on infrastructure
  • Make wiser decisions about transportation projects when investing scarce resources

For more information on Volpe's thought leadership program, please contact, Ellen Bell, director of Strategic Initiatives for Research and Innovation.

Watch video highlights from this event:

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