Is this any way to run a railroad?

Original Reporting | By Greg Marx |

Forging an alternative path

America’s vast size and system of shared authority between the federal government and the states does create unique challenges to building nationally integrated infrastructure. In Wisconsin, for example, a newly elected Republican governor is promising to kill a high-speed rail project that would be funded by the federal government. Nevertheless, the experience of other countries can be instructive. The United Kingdom, faced with a similar disconnect, has over the last few years radically reorganized its own Department for Transportation, subordinating modal divisions to a hierarchy of geographic networks: one director oversees city and regional networks, another national connections, and a third international links. Each is charged with helping to meet national performance goals, which are expressed in terms of environmental, economic, and other social benefits.

If we want truly want to conceive a new national network, said Freemark, “what we really need is a Congressional agreement about what the goals of the national transportation project are.”

Other elements of the shift in the U.K. — including a scrupulously “mode-neutral” approach and heavy reliance on cost-benefit analysis — are controversial, and some have been tweaked as that country proceeds with its own high-speed rail initiative. But the spirit of wide-ranging institutional reform is reflected in plenty of stateside proposals. The 2008 report that Schenendorf helped write recommended the consolidation of 108 federal programs into 10, and called for the creation of a standing commission that would devise a strategic national plan (and, subject to Congressional veto, tax levels to support it). The following year, the advocacy coalition Transportation for America (T4A) released its own blueprint for reform, including a set of objectives and performance targets and a proposed federal transportation structure. Legislation was even introduced that would have set T4A’s objectives into law, and an outline for a new surface transportation bill released by Congressional leaders made progress toward streamlining the U.S.’s byzantine system (though some of its provisions, like a new Undersecretary of Intermodalism who would sit atop the department’s silos, were, as one advocate put it, comparatively “feeble” solutions).

As the surface transportation bill stalled and economic concerns moved to the forefront, the issue of structural reform receded. (The stimulus bill, which by design worked through existing programs, if anything entrenched the current way of doing business.) Some sort of reform, though, now seems likely: consolidation of haphazard and duplicative programs has become part of the president’s stump speech on infrastructure, and the Department of Transportation is talking about making greater use of competitive grants. Meanwhile, supporters of an “infrastructure bank,” which include the White House, argue that, in addition to attracting private investment, it would create a mechanism “to make decisions based on merit, quantitative evidence, and empirics, as opposed to pork and politics,” said Robert Puentes, a senior fellow at The Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program.

There’s some disagreement, though, about just what these reforms will accomplish.  For example, skeptics caution that while the bank may have merit, it will probably support only certain types of projects, and thus cannot, by itself, provide a coherent vision. If we truly want to conceive a new national network, said Freemark, “what we really need is a Congressional agreement about what the goals of the national transportation project are.”

It’s not clear whether such an agreement is in sight, or even how hard the next Congress will try to achieve it. (Rep. John Mica, a Florida Republican who is the likely future chairman of the House transportation committee, and who supported last year’s draft bill, did not respond to questions for this story.) The current system, of course, holds advantages for many participants — a congressman who knows how to operate in a “pork and politics” regime doesn’t have much incentive to help put a more technocratic approach in place.

The deeper obstacle, of course, is this: agreeing that a coherent approach organized around comprehensive goals would have benefits is very different from agreeing about what those goals should be. Many reformers today want to steer federal investment toward existing economic centers. Robert Yaro, president of the Regional Plan Association and co-chair of America 2050, noted that the first proposals for an interstate system, in the 1930s, did the same thing, but it wasn’t until Eisenhower put forward a plan with more widely distributed benefits that — two decades later — the project ultimately moved forward.  (Freemark, asked for his views on the U.K. model, summed up the challenge another way: “Here’s the question,” he said. “Whose goals are we prioritizing? I have no problem with the idea of developing a multi-modal approach based on comprehensive goals — as long as those goals align with mine.”) And that leaves aside the related issue of how deeply the federal government should be involved in implementing any vision it sets out — a question with important implications for how costs are shared.

In other words, finding a path to reform would be difficult. “But going to the moon was difficult too,” RePass said. “That doesn’t mean you don’t do it.” Or, to tweak an old line: you’ve got to be careful if you don’t know where you’re going, because you might get there.

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