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Comments on the Surface Transportation Assistance Act of 1991

by Daniel Convissor
19 March 1991 All references to sections are in existing legislation.
One and two digit sections are in USCode Title 49 Appendix.
Three digit sections are in USCode Title 23.


The funding and organizational structure of the Federally aided roadway and mass transit systems are currently under review. Existing terms end on September 31 when the Surface Transportation Assistance Act of 1987 expires. Since the interstate highway system is nearly complete, the new legislation will be of a very different nature. Everyone concerned with improving their communities and environment as well as those with economic interests (e.g. train manufacturers, transit workers and persons involved with real estate dependent on compact land use) need to voice their concerns with the current transport system and what they desire from the new legislation.

Discussions regarding reauthorization of the STAA have begun amongst the Office of Management and Budget, Department of Transportation and Congress. Likewise, mass transit advocates, bicycling advocates, safety experts and environmentalists are talking and forming coalitions. We need to activate our political power now to ensure our mobility and protect our environment in the future.

The administration has just submitted their proposals for the new legislation. Based upon discussions with persons at USDOT, examining draft principles used internally by the DOT and news articles on the subject The proposed program is roadway oriented, increasing the funding for highways -- calling for their widening and the creation of more. The transit funding for capital projects would increase slightly -- though will shrink due to inflation -- and the operating subsidies would be eliminated. The policy needs to be reoriented to resolve our national energy, environmental and fiscal woes, and this document is a look at the major sticking points.

Highways:

Apportionment Formulas:
There are four major roadway systems which are funded by the USDOT: Interstate, primary, secondary and urban. Congress has determined a fixed amount of money from the Highway Trust Fund which will be used for each of these systems around the United States. The funds given for each system to each state are called apportionments.

The size of the state's apportionments are determined by formulas written in the code. The formulas are currently based on factors such as the lane miles of roadway, vehicle miles traveled, the level of mail routes, the population and the size of the state in square miles. In the reauthorization, the FHWA has proposed basing the apportionment formulas primarily on the amount of motor fuel used, which will perpetuate less efficient vehicles and increased driving. The states which have the most fuel are the most dependent upon autos, therefore need the most money to create access to jobs and services without the need for an auto or truck.

Bob Yuhnke of the Environmental Defense fund has made a wise suggestion that the apportionment formulas should be based upon each state's improvement in the ratio of Passenger Miles Traveled divided by Vehicle Miles Traveled. This will encourage states to make non-automotive modes of travel easier. An additional formula which I suggest is based upon improvements in the ratio of Gross State Product divided by Passenger Miles Traveled. This formula will reward states which reduce the need to travel all together, which can be accomplished by methods such as better zoning or telecommuting. These formulas will meet the energy security and environmental needs of our nation while enhancing our economy through access.

Reducing the use of petroleum for our transportation system is in the interest of our local, state and national economies. The US, and most communities in it, import more oil then they produce. This outflow of currency has severe negative impacts on the local economies. If the oil flow ceases while we are still dependent upon it, the economies will collapse. Breaking our oil addiction is essential.

Decrease Road Expenditures, Increase Fares:
An increase in roadway expenditures is sought by the administration -- from $14 billion to $20 billion. For economic and ecologic reasons, the funds for roadway capacity expansion need to be eliminated. Roadway funding should focus on repairing our crumbling infrastructure.

At the press conference releasing the new policy, the administration said how roads will spur economy. Any transportation improvements will spur the economy, but rail, bicycles and walking provide the ability to concentrate economic improvements.

"Since it is unfair and unjust to tax motor-vehicle transportation unless the proceeds of such taxation are applied to the construction, improvement of maintenance of highways..." (Section 126). How fair is the current practice where property taxes of people who don't drive are being used to pay roughly 85% of local roads? Along the same lines, Section 129 restricts collecting user fees on federal highways which would be in excess of operation, maintenance, and debt service costs.

The roadway system levies many social costs which tolls and taxes do not cover. Such costs are air, noise and water pollution, loss of open spaces, stress and accidents. The administration is thinking of allowing federal funds to pay for 35% of toll roads. Sections 126 and 129 should be replaced with the permission to charge whatever fare the local road operator feels is appropriate and lets us spend it wherever they want.

Federal Share:
The Highways of National Significance would be able to receive 75% Federal funding -- the level of funding currently received by the Urban System, the Primary System and the Secondary System. The Interstate Highways would continue to receive 90% Federal funding. The new Urban-Rural System would be welcome to a 60% Federal match. Mass transit currently receives up to an 80% match though is proposed to receive only a 60% match.

The construction of High-Occupancy Vehicle lanes will be able to receive a 90% Federal match if the administration has their way. The construction of new roadway lanes is counterproductive, removing high-occupancy vehicles from the remaining traffic lanes, thereby making it easier to drive alone. I have seen no studies which indicate newly constructed HOV lanes increase the proportion of carpooling. In fact a study in Santa Clara County (CA) revealed that after the addition of a HOV, the percentage of carpooling decreased. HOV lanes should only be established on existing pavement.

Repair vs. Expansion:
The FHWA is going to impress the importance of restoration, but not to the exclusion of new roads. Developing areas can get new roads they say. This is preposterous. No new roads, we need high density nodes, and travel between by mass transit modes.

The Highway Trust Fund provides funds to maintain the interstate system. From 1976 to 1981, the program was called 3-R -- resurfacing, rehabilitation, restoration. In 1981 Section 119 (c) was revised to also permit reconstruction, making it into the 4-R program. Reconstruction allows for the addition of travel lanes and innovative technologies to make traffic move faster. The capacity expansion provision of the 4-R program should be eliminated in the revision.

Research and Technology, Management vs. Construction:
There is great interest within the DOT and the transportation community to require increased efforts to manage traffic rather than build new roadway capacity -- an excellent move. Section 135 provides funding for Traffic Operations Improvement Programs which can be spent in any way the Secretary wishes to. Traditionally, these funds are used for projects such as contraflow lanes, computerized signs, and other gizmos which make it easier to drive. The FHWA is proposing the elimination of the program only to be shuffled into research and technology. In the new STAA, the FHWA would like to receive expanded funding to perform R&D for Intelligent Vehicle-Highway Systems, (aka "smart highways" or Strategic Gridlock Initiative). The Transportation Systems Management measures which are technical fixes should not be utilized.

What needs to be researched are demand management techniques, reducing the need to travel through methods such as telecommuting and compact/mixed land use. The R&D funding should be used to implement permanent solutions through the creating computer programs, courses, manuals and promotional campaigns which utilize techniques to reduce travel demand.

Bicycling and Highways:
There is an effort to create a National Scenic and Recreational Highway system. Since these efforts could increase traffic on some quiet back roads which are currently ideal for cycling, section 148 should be amended to have a clause which requires these roads to have paved and well maintained shoulders which are at least 3 foot wide or they should not be classified in this highway system.

The Hazard Elimination program provides funding to fix roadside obstacles and poorly marked roads which may constitute a hazard o motorists or pedestrians. This section (152) should be expanded to incorporate the elimination of conditions which are hazardous to bicyclists.

Joseph Kennedy Jr. (D-MA) proposed 1% of each states highway apportionment be spent on bicycle facilities. Since bicycling is currently at about 1% of the transportation use sector, the funding percentage should be upped to at least 3% because we desperately need more bicyclists.

With the growing congestion and pollution emanating from our interstate highways, we need to broaden our mobility options in order to reduce our dependence on the automobile. To do this, we must open the interstate system and all bridges to bicycles, pedestrians and smaller vehicles -- such as hybrid human/solar powered. In all instances riding on an Interstate Highway with an 8 to 10 foot shoulder and a speed limit of 55 to 65 mph is safer than riding on a US Highway (such as Route 1) where the speed limit is around 50 mph with shoulders ranging from 0 to 2 feet.

There is a section, 217, which requires bicycle access to bridges which are using federal funds to be replace or rehabilitate the decks. The clause which states that this shall be done when bicycles are permitted to ride at each end of the bridge, should be removed, thereby allowing all forms of transportation on all bridges.

These access policies could be implemented just like the drinking age is, regulated on a state by state basis, and states which do not comply with the Federal wishes have 1/3 of their federal funding withheld. Authorities and commissions which do not adhere to this policy could have tax levied on their income.

Paving Paradise...
The STAA funds several other classes of roads: forest highways (main roads which are also used for forestry purposes) $55m, forest development roads and trails (which have subsequently been incorporated into the Dept. of Agriculture), indian reservation roads $80m, public lands highways $40m, park roads and parkways $60m, and defense highways.

The forest highways are to take "into consideration renewable resource and land use planning." If this is the case, these roads would not have been built in the first place. Clearcutting old growth stands is not renewable. Clearcutting hillsides is not renewable. The forest highways should not be funded until the Forest Service reforms their land use practices.

The administration has proposed to not reauthorize the public lands highways, and they could use our support. The DOT apparently plans to support improvements to the Alaska/Canada International Highway and retain the remaining systems of indian reservation roads, park roads and defense highways, which too should not be reauthorized.

Safety:
Deleting the requisite of speed limit enforcement has been proposed. This is not a way to make our transportation system safer. There are some positive aspects being proposed, such as lowering the threshold of Blood Alcohol Content to from .1% to .08% to consider drivers drunk. Consideration is also being given to requiring safety belt laws.

The trucking industry is pushing to increase the permissible length of trucks. Currently, tandems are the maximum, but they are seeking triple trailers. Research has shown the back end of a triple trailer moves side to side by up to 4 feet in each direction. Railroad advocates fear the longer trucks will seriously cut into freight railroad business. Labor unions see the potential of many jobs being lost. Truck size and weight limits should remain where they are.

Miscellaneous Provisions:
The revision should eliminate the 5% bonus, given by Section 105 (f) in the STAA of 1987, to states which obligate their highway apportionments quickly.

Currently, Section 115 allows states to construct a project to federal standards and then apply for federal aid for the project. The advance construction provision should be changed to delete the provision for expansion.

Thoughts are floating about advancing funds to states for projects with exceptionally high costs. The funds would be repaid by receiving less funding during the subsequent 3 years. A High-Cost Project Fund should not be created for highway purposes.

A higher Federal share is provided by Section 120 (l) to roads incurring a substantial use as a result of meeting national energy requirements. Section 105 (h) allows the such roads to receive priority for 4-R funding. These sections should be updated. Roads which promote recycling and other secondary resources should be given a high priority. A lower federal share and lower priority should be given to roads which reduce our energy capacity -- such as those to resource recovery incineration facilities (since incineration generates less energy than the amount of energy which would be saved by recycling the materials).

From the reauthorization in 1973 emerged Section 143, the Economic Growth Center Development Highways, to fund projects which would increase roadway access to rural areas. Now the administration is proposing a Rural Development Program, which will provide discretionary funding for relief of rural transportation problems. These programs should become the Rural Access Program which would provide funds to increase access by reducing the need to drive. This would fund transportation projects such as park and rides, transit, sidewalks and bikeways in areas which institute new ordinances which condense and combine land uses.

Bridges have a special category in the legislation, Section 144, for replacement and rehabilitation. For the purposes of this program, rehabilitation does not include capacity expansion. In the new STAA, the bridge funds should continue to be used for repairs while it should permit funding access for handicapped, pedestrians, bicyclists or mass transit.

The engineers at FHWA are so presumptuous that they hope get funds to provide training and technology to engineers in developing countries. The International Transportation program must not be approved.

Funding Flexibility:

Transportation System of National Significance:
The administration is asking for the condensation of the four road systems into two: the Urban-Rural System and the Highways of National Significance. The DOT is planning to provide great flexibility in the transfer of funds between the Urban-Rural System and mass transportation. The administration is not planning to have such flexibility with the Highways of National Significance system, despite the call for a Transportation System of National Significance in Moving America -- the national transportation policy document published in February of 1990.

This is a major mistake, limiting our funding to the mode of transport which has been given the advantage for too long. The current foreclosure of options -- ie the vast federal dollars for highways -- forces states which need to move people to build a road even if they really want a railroad. We really do need a Transportation System of National Significance, incorporating all modes of transportation. The TSNS should obtain levels of funding which the interstate system currently gets. The funds should be used to improve both urban and inter-city passenger rail, airports, ports, roads, rail freight, and especially the connections between the various modes. The flexible funding must permit the use of highway funds for rail transit, but not the use of transit funds for highways.

The abilities of a Transportation System of National Significance is exemplified by what Conrail and Santa Fe have done on their own. These two rail freight companies are working together to provide 76 hour rail freight service between the Port of Los Angeles, CA and Port Newark, NJ. The unloading of containers from ships to rail and back to ships on the other side of the continent is faster than providing direct service on a ship through the Panama Canal. These fast and efficient transportation services provide jobs for Americans in the world market, and can only be accomplished by an integrated system of transportation facilities.

Similar feats could be worked out between Amtrak and local passenger transit agencies. The function Amtrak performs is very similar to what an interstate highways or airports can do. Both the airports and the highways have a their own dedicated funds and receive federal funds. Intercity rail service (Amtrak) should be provided such funding as well, receiving funds from the HNS/ TSNS.

Creating a TSNS can be done immediately through including funding categories in the STAA. However, the long term goal should be to merge and slightly amend various sections of the United States Code, including, but not limited to: Title 23 (Highways), Title 33 (Navigation), Title 45 (Railroads), Title 49 (Transportation).

Money for Transit from Highways, Existing Regulations:
There are legal mechanisms for states to transfer some of the funds apportioned for highway use to mass transit use. Funds apportioned to the four federal aid highway systems may be used for bus transportation purposes. Money for the urban system can be used for rail transportation purposes as well. In the reauthorization, paragraph 142 (a) (1) should be amended to allow the funds of all highway systems to be transferred to rail uses. Any funds from the Highway Trust Fund which can be used for mass transportation are not substitutes for, but are supplementary to funds from the Urban Mass Transportation Administration. Elimination of the prohibition created by Section 142 (k) on the use of urban system funds for rail transportation in urban area which have an Urban Transportation Trust Fund should be sought in the revision.

Currently, section 104 (c) allows funds to be shifted between the primary system and the secondary system or between the primary system and the urban system. These transfers need to occur at the request of the state highway department and approval of the Governor and the Secretary of the USDOT. Funds can not be transferred twice, ie. from the secondary to the primary to the urban. The 104 (c) transfers can not remove or add more than 50% of the funds originally in the apportionment. By lack of restriction, it is possible to transfer funds from the primary system to the urban system and then use urban funds for rail projects, a positive step which should remain. Enhancing this step by permitting the use of any roadway funds on mass transit purposes and lifting the 50% restriction on moving funds from road systems to mass transit use.

The rights of way for the federal aid systems can be used in creative manners. Park and ride facilities can be constructed next to, above or below the rights of way. On the urban system, the P&R's can be for mass transportation, but there are no provisions for the urban funds to be used. On the interstate system P&R facilities for carpooling can be built with money from the 4-R apportionment. In reauthorization, sections 142 and 137 should be expanded to allow payment for P&R's on the urban system and to allow P&R facilities for bus and rail with interstate funds. Other creative uses include the funding of carpool and vanpooling programs, exclusive lanes for HOV's or trucks, and any Federal ROW can even be used to carry a railroad at no charge.

If the request of the Governor and the local officials to withdraw a proposed portion of the interstate system was granted before September 30, 1983, the state can use the funds and right of way slated for the project for mass transportation purposes. These funds can be used for paying the federal share of a mass transportation program which will serve the same area as the road would have. The maximum share the federal substitution program will pay for the new project's cost is 85%. Of the federal funds available, 50% is spent at the discretion of the Secretary while the remaining 50% is used for the estimate approved by congress. In addition to those funds, the Secretary has $740,000,000 each year at his discretion for dedesignation projects. All of these funds must be used within 2 years after apportionment to the state. The right of way and estimated funds must be used within ten years of dedesignation. The local officials and Governor must approve any project.

Mass Transportation:

Section 9 provides block grants to cover up to 80% of the cost for construction and leases instead of construction. The majority of the grants are for buses. The apportionment formulas for rail depend primarily upon vehicle miles and route miles. The formulas for bus grants depend upon vehicle miles, population size, and population density. The formulas for Section 9 grants should be reworked as discussed in the Apportionment Formulas section on page 2, making the predominant factor for apportionment of funds between modes and between transit agencies be the passenger miles traveled divided by the total passenger miles traveled of all modes.

The administration would like to eliminate operating assistance. Operating assistance, provided by Section 9 grants, can cover up to 50% of operating costs. Removing the cap instated by Section 9 (k) on the overall level of funds which can be spent on operating assistance would be another positive measure.

Funds for acquisition and construction of facilities are provided by the Discretionary Grant and Loan Program of Section 3. These funds can pay for up to 75% of rail modernization, rail expansion or buses and related facilities.

The administration has proposed reducing the federal share of a project, the level of operating assistance and the levels of total funds used in order to "reduce reliance on the General Fund." No network of highways and local roads has ever paid for its degrading the quality of life, let alone pay for itself. The federal share for mass transit projects must not be reduced and the levels of funding increased.

Bikes and Mass Transit:
The "Americans with Disabilities Act" was passed this year in Congress, requiring access for all handicapped persons to all possible mass transit facilities. The facilities for handicapped persons can easily accommodate bicycles.

It has been found that bike access to mass transit facilities doubles the catchment area of a rail station. In order to reduce our dependency on automobiles for mobility, bicycles need access to mass transit facilities. Section 25 will pay a 90% share of projects for bicycle access to mass transit facilities. The in the revision, serious consideration should be given to making bicycles on mass transit mandatory and specifying a spending percentage. When improving or expanding parking lots, at least 10% of the funds should be used for bicycle access. For other projects, bicycle access projects should receive over 1% of available funds.

Rights of Way:

If rights-of-way planned to be used for a project are not used for a project, the federal money must be returned. Highway projects give the money back to the Right-of-way Revolving Fund created by Sec. 108 (c) (3), thereby keeping it in use for roadways. Mass transit projects, on the other hand, are required by Sec. 3 (b) to return their funds as miscellaneous receipts to the Treasury. Serious consideration should be given to dismantling the highway revolving fund and/or creating a revolving fund for mass transit right of way acquisition.

Once an abandoned right of way is chopped up and sold, it becomes incredibly more costly to reestablish. In order to keep our options open, a fund should be created to store abandoned rail rights of way for future rail use.

Metropolitan Planning:

In 1962, Section 134 was added to Title 23, mandating transportation planning for urban areas with populations in excess of 50,000 people. The section says many good things:
It is...in the national interest to encourage and promote the development of transportation systems embracing various modes of transportation that will serve the States and local communities efficiently and effectively.... plans and programs which are formulated on the basis of transportation needs with due consideration to comprehensive long range land use plans, development objectives, and overall social, economic, environmental, system performance, and energy conservation goals and objectives, and with due consideration to their probable effect on the future development of urban areas.... The process shall consider all modes of transportation and shall be continuing, cooperative, and comprehensive [the 3- C's]....
All this sounds great, and means that this process would lead to excellent rail systems with feeder bus and bicycle networks all complementing compact development. As we all know, this is not the case. The urban planning process is totally off base and needs major revision.
...plans and programs which are formulated on the basis of transportation needs with due consideration to comprehensive long range land use plans of high density nodes, concentrated development objectives, and overall social, economic, environmental, system performance, as well as land and energy conservation goals and objectives, and with due consideration to their probable effect on the future quality of life in [development of] urban areas....
The groups which deal with these plans are called Metropolitan Planning Organizations. Public participation is difficult, the two MPO's in the New York City area are not even in the phone book. Public participation in the planning process must be more ardently required. It is difficult to hold MPO's accountable for their actions since they are not part of any governmental level. Since these agencies are mandated by Federal legislation, they should be a part of the Federal government.

The Clean Air Act of 1990 includes some interesting provisions which relate to metropolitan planning. Transportation projects cannot be built if they will degrade the air quality of the area and are part of a conformity plan. Since it is possible to include a project in the conformity plan without actually planning to build it, the STAA should require all projects in the conformity to have funding committed to them in order to fund any of them.

Since these requirements will create the need for increased use of mass transit, but there are not enough mass transit funds, the Senate version of the CAA permitted non-attainment areas to transfer funds from highways to transit, park and rides, HOV lanes and other means to reduce motor vehicle use. Unfortunately, the provision was killed in the conference committee. Representative Mineta (CA) is supporting such a provision in the STAA.

The MPO's budgets have been cut in past years so they are incapable of doing an adequate job. The MPO's need more money -- about 4 times more money than presently receiving, which would be about 1% of transit and highway spending.

These planning measures should improve the way things are going in our urban areas, but there is still a lot of land which is not urban, and should stay so. Overall environmental review needs to be improved.

Environmental Review:

The environmental review must account for the subtle effects. Such effects are runoff of salt, oil and tire dust; road kills; habitat separation; stress on people in the neighborhoods surrounding the facility; the list goes on.

Our review process needs to take into consideration long range effects. Adding roadway capacity through construction or traffic systems management do immediately reduce pollution and energy use from each vehicle. In the long term though, moving traffic faster only invites more people to drive and leave mass transit, producing more pollution and energy use.

The capacity expansion also leads to more sprawling development, and sprawling development leads to congested roads. Even if the land immediately around the highway is strictly regulated, the added capacity will make it easier to drive from other areas to other areas. Regional land use must emphasize condensation around rail lines and the majority of land uses so distances between uses are gradually reduced.

There has been outcry from the building trades and transportation agencies to ease environmental regulation. The best possible change in environmental review would be that any rail project may be declared to have "no significant impact" while no roadway project can be declared as having "no significant impact."

Section 138 declares: that no "park, recreation, or wildlife and waterfowl refuge,... historic site shall be used for a highway... unless there is no feasible and prudent alternative to the use of such land." That loophole is big enough to drive a Mack truck through! Close it! We don't need any more roads.

In Closing:

The topic of transportation policy, like most subjects, has many facets. These facets touch on everyone's life. Unlike our current system which provides only benefits to some people, implementing the strategies outlined above will create policies which provide benefits to all people.

These strategies will provide the nation with a safe, energy and land efficient transportation system for the 21st century. We hope these points are adopted in the new Surface Transportation Assistance Act.


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