Different needs throughout U.S. complicate Congressional transportation policy

City, suburb, and rural differences present policy dilemmas

No matter how divided politicians are across the U.S., Republicans and Democrats can still agree that sitting in bumper-to-bumper traffic is something worth fixing.

That said, the recently passed, five-year FAST Act transportation bill does represent a slight increase in funding, but has been largely criticized by transit advocates as remaining, according to Eric Jaffe in CityLab, “centered on the sort of highway spending and road expansion that has historically worsened traffic and sprawl for U.S. metro areas.”

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Within that context, a cross section of representatives from the House of Representatives recently spoke to members of the Association for Commuter Transportation during its 2016 Public Policy Summit in Washington, D.C., revealing the competing interests and priorities for the limited pot of funding.

And the differences between the interests of rural areas, the suburbs, and the cities could mean that the FAST Act and the typical Congressional approach is too traditional and slight to forge major changes in how the nation’s transportation system works.

A rural focus on roads

Rep. Sam Graves, a Missouri Republican representing rural and suburban sections of northern Missouri, understandably spoke of having his mind set on the $305 billion FAST Act and how that funding could make roads less congested and fix aging infrastructure.

Graves said he doesn’t like the thought of raising the gas tax or increasing tolls, but a vehicle miles traveled user fee (he was careful to note it was not a tax), like the one being piloted in Oregon, might be a mechanism to bring transportation funding up to what is needed to fix infrastructure.

“Obviously, transportation and infrastructure in this country is vital. It is the lifeblood of business and commerce,” he said.

However, Graves said congestion and transit are simply not transportation priorities for the rural areas he represents. “Traffic in my home town is two cars and a stop sign. We have more of an issue with traffic in the form of slow-moving farm equipment on the road and backing up cars and lanes not being wide enough to get around.”

To Graves, the focus in these areas needs to be on fixing crumbling bridges and roads and incentivizing more carpooling.

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Commuters ride the Boston area’s commuter rail system into the city.

A suburban focus on commuters

Rep. Jim McGovern is a Massachusetts Democrat who represents the central part of the state, including its second-largest city, Worcester. He frequently rides the train 40 miles into Boston and has been a leading advocate for making the tax benefit for transit riders equal to the benefit drivers can get for parking costs.

The tax parity for transit and driving just passed in January, and Rep. McGovern told the ACT members, “In this town, easy things are difficult. It’s so unusual we can celebrate passing anything that I don’t want to leave the podium.”

Making it easier and more sensible for people to ride transit is crucial, he said, noting that, “I’ve concluded that it’s good for peace of mind. As one who has to go back and forth from Worcester to Boston all the time, if I’m in a car [on the highway], I might as well be in a parking lot. I don’t take my blood pressure, but I’m sure it’s going through the roof. By contrast, being able to ride on the train, I can do my work or talk to people or get up and walk around.”

An urban focus on new modes

Rep. Eric Swalwell, a California Democrat and the youngest member of that state’s delegation, is emerging as one of Capitol Hill’s hopes for the future of transportation.

Citing a recent PricewaterhouseCoopers survey that noted a rise in revenue for the travel and carsharing industries, Rep. Swalwell said he hopes to help government evolve along with the fast-changing and disrupted transportation industry.

Virginia’s Rep. Don Beyer, who represents Arlington County and Alexandria, also spoke positively during the conference of the potential for sharing and on-demand options. Beyer noted that the FAST Act was the first transportation funding bill to include a title on innovation, adding that our “[transportation] system will look very different five, 10 years from today.”

While Swalwell’s bi-partisan sharing economy amendment to the DRIVE Act – which would make it easier for transit agencies to work with bikesharing, carsharing and on-demand ride companies by using federal funding – failed 181-237, he is glad it set a standard for future votes on the issue.

Swalwell also worked with Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) in drafting a letter for the General Services Administration to allow federal employees to be reimbursed for using services like Uber, and the GSA actually wrote back with approval.

Swalwell hopes the federal government can play a role in:

  • piloting programs to discount the use of sharing-economy options
  • establishing first- and last-mile solutions from existing transit hubs, and
  • ushering in autonomous vehicles, about which he joked that he is so far the lone – or “autonomous” – member of Congress’s autonomous-vehicle caucus. “I have a three-year-old nephew, and my prediction to my family over Easter was that he will never have to learn how to drive a car. I really believe that,” he said.

But even with these exciting potential plans, Swalwell admits that the government may mostly be playing catch-up on transportation issues. “We can’t forget our role in the federal government to fund transportation projects and to start thinking big again.”

Photos, from top: A view of the U.S. Capitol from busy North Capitol Street in Washington, D.C. (Mike Maguire, Flickr, Creative Commons). Boston commuters boarding a train in Norwood, Mass. (akoktsidis, Flickr, Creative Commons)/

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