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Toward a New Era in Transportation

A congressional commission today started what it hopes will be a national conversation about what we want out of our transportation system and how we'll pay for it.

You can find the commission's full report here. These are some -- but definitely not all -- of the conclusions.

-- As thousands of drivers and transit riders in the Washington region rediscover on a daily basis, whatever we're doing now isn't working. It's taking more and more time and it's more and more stressful to reach our destinations.

-- We need to figure out what we're trying to do. The last time we had a national goal for getting around was when we planned, financed and built the interstate highway system that today accounts for about a quarter of four traffic. Today we have something that's more like a national revenue-sharing program between the federal government and the states and localities.

-- The solution isn't to create a new list of construction projects and vehicle purchases. We need to agree on goals that include strengthening our economy, improving public safety and making it easier for people to get where they want to go. The construction and purchasing will flow from those goals, not from congressional earmarks that finance bridges to nowhere.

-- The federal interest in a healthy transportation system is as strong as ever and should continue. But we can't do what needs to be done without the heavy involvement -- in both planning and financing -- of states and local governments and the private sector.

-- We lost our way a long time ago, and it's going to cost us just to recover from the deterioration drivers and transit users see. And it will cost even more to hand off a better transportation system to the next couple of generations. The commission estimates the national investment in transportation needs to be at least $225 billion a year from all source sof rhte next 50 years.

-- Change the way we pay for this as soon as possible. But in the meantime, raise the gas tax and create a transit users' tax, to spread the burden around. The federal gas tax needs to be raised 25 to 40 cents per gallon over a five year period and then indexed to inflation to meet the level of investment we need. (There's no specific figure for a transit tax.)

-- As soon as the technology and management issues can be overcome, replace the gas tax system with a tax based on miles traveled in a vehicle. The more you use the roads, the more you pay for them.

-- Use tolling systems not only to generate money for transportation projects but also to manage congestion, by charging more to travel in areas with heavy traffic.

The commission, the National Surface Transportation Policy and Revenue Study Commission to use its full name, is on the right track. We've needed to have this national talk for a long time.

Some commissioners fear that the discussion will focus exclusively on several controversies involving money and politics: 1) They're talking about a huge allocation of resources to transportation in a nation with many competing priorities. 2) Is it politically practical to ask Congress to significantly raise the gas tax, or will we hear politicians say that this whole program is DOA? Is it significant that the three White House appointed commissioners (including Transportation Secretary Mary Peters) refused to sign on the the report endorsed by the other nine commissioners? The minority view is included in a supplement to the majority report.

Those aspects must be talked out, but it would be a shame -- more than a shame, it would be a disaster -- if the commission's warnings about our present and future and about our need to recreate national goals got lost in the controversies.

The commissioners will report to the U.S. House on Thursday and to the Senate next week. They stand strongly by their work and hope it will form the basis for a new national transportation policy starting in 2009.

By Robert Thomson  |  January 15, 2008; 2:08 PM ET
Categories:  Transportation Politics  
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