Transportation for America Calls for No More Funding for New Roads and Highways

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credit: Wisconsin Historical society

They say it's time to fix what we've got, and make roads slower and safer.

Every five years, the federal transportation law in the US has to be reauthorized. And every five years, everyone calls for more money to be spent to build more new roads.

Transportation for America (T4America) is “an advocacy organization made up of local, regional and state leaders who envision a transportation system that safely, affordably and conveniently connects people of all means and ability to jobs, services, and opportunity through multiple modes of travel.”

They note that $50 billion is spent on transportation infrastructure every year, but more than half of that is spent on new roads and highways.

The more we spend, the more that congestion, emissions, and pedestrian fatalities seem to rise. We spend billions while failing to address our most basic need: getting people where they need to go safely and efficiently. More money alone will not suffice without accountability for measurable or tangible accomplishments.

For the 2020 reauthorization, they call for a complete rethink of where the money goes, and they don’t want it going to new highways. In fact, they don’t even want the funding increased. Instead, they lay out three principles:

Principle 1: Prioritize maintenance.

Principle One

© Transportation for America

“If your house has a leaky roof, it’s only prudent to fix the roof before building a new addition.” I think that’s a lousy analogy; many people will borrow money to build the addition, knowing that they can roll the new roof into the loan. Fixing the roof, on the other hand, means digging in to their own bank account. That’s why money has to be dedicated to maintenance, which is what T4America asks for. “The next authorization should cut the maintenance backlog in half by dedicating formula highway funds to maintenance. In addition, when building new road capacity, agencies should be required to create a plan for maintaining both the new road and the rest of their system.”

Principle 2: Design for safety over speed.

Principle 2

© Transportation for America

Good luck with this one, and it is not enough.

A serious effort to reduce deaths on our roadways requires slower speeds on local and arterial roads. The federal program should require designs and approaches that put safety first. Roads surrounded by development should be designed to serve those areas with speeds of 35 mph or under, as speeds under 35 mph dramatically decrease the likelihood of fatalities in a crash.

35MPH?!!! Twenty is plenty! “Roadways through developed areas have lots of points of conflict (driveways and intersections, not to mention bicyclists and pedestrians).” So design them so that people feel comfortable driving even more slowly. 35 MPH is too fast.

Principle 3: Connect people to jobs and services.

Principle 3

© Transportation for America

This is not well phrased, as that is what every road engineer will say they are doing. They allude to the problem: “The way we build roads and design communities to achieve high vehicle speed often requires longer trips and makes shorter walking or bicycling trips unsafe, unpleasant, or impossible.“ I used to define this problem as “how we get around determines what we build,” but transportation consultant Jarrett Walker said it better in what is now my new mantra: “Land use and transportation are the same thing described in different languages.”

Basically, if we want people to be able to walk or bike safely, we have to build our communities in a way that there is something to walk or bike to within a reasonable distance, and we have to make it unnecessary to need a car to go everywhere. A hundred years ago, walking, bikes and public transit were transportation, and cars were recreation; that’s something to aim for today.

Over at Strong Towns, Charles Marohn is impressed;

There is even more, and it’s really amazingly good...It’s all kinds of smart. And it’s all kinds of brave too. Like, the principled kind of brave. It’s a lot easier to open doors when you’re aligned with those wanting to spend more. It’s more of a challenge to be the one suggesting we stop and think about things first. This move will make their work more difficult, but more meaningful. We should all admire them for their courage and vision.

Indeed, for an organization that Director Beth Osborne says is no longer advocating for more money for transportation, yet “raising the gas tax or otherwise raising new funding overall has also been a core plank of our platform since 2013,” it is brave. But Marohn notes that he and his organization have been calling for even more radical shifts:

We’ve long called for #NoNewRoads — a freeze on all new transportation spending until there is significant reform — and fought against those in the Infrastructure Cult who self-servingly call for for more transportation spending, even when the numbers supporting that call are ridiculous.

Another group, the Transportation Research Board, has a different view.


US Department of Transportation/Promo image
Meanwhile, in the face of our dire climate crisis, Joe Cortright of The City Observatory notes that the Transportation Research Board is “calling for tripling spending on highway construction to as much as $70 billion annually, to accommodate and another 1.25 trillion miles of driving each year.”

If we’re serious about tackling climate change, reversing the damage done by the Interstate Highway system should be at the top of our list. A new congressionally mandated review of the system provides, in theory, an opportunity to think hard about how we might invest for the kind of future we’re going to live in. Sadly, the report we’ve been provided by the Transportation Research Board is a kind of stilted amnesia, which calls for us to repeat today just what we did 70 years ago. Now is no time for indulging nostalgia for the Eisenhower era. But that’s exactly what we’re being offered.

I wonder who the politicians will listen to, Transportation for America or the Transportation Research Board?