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Unsustainable at any speed

Marc Lefkowitz  |  11/14/07 @ 4:38pm

Is transportation driving us toward a day of reckoning? Fueled by an explosion of earmarks or "pork" during the last few years, funding for highway infrastructure in the U.S. may see a red light soon.

Congress is warning states that overspending last year might lead to belt tightening in 2007. Legislators are currently debating whether or not to keep the transportation budget at 2006 levels, which would effectively mean a cut in funding to the tune of $3.4 billion for highways and $471 million for transit nationwide.

If the cuts happen, the federal government will ask Ohio to cut its DOT program balances by $128 million. Which programs ODOT decides to cut, and how much, will be a clear indication of the Strickland Administration's priorities.

Will the Congestion Mitigation Air Quality or Enhancements programs-which pay for quality of life improvements like bike lanes and pedestrian districts-go under the knife? Or, will funding for local bridge repairs be gutted?

The best case scenario would have ODOT making across-the-board cuts without gutting any particular programs.

But, a loophole in federal law allows states to continue overspending on highways even while slashing the budget for programs that mitigate air pollution or Complete Streets. Under accumulated contract authority, states are able to roll over money from past years. For example, Illinois bumped up its budget for highway building to 102% while deciding to make its bridge repair program absorb 50% of the total annual shortfall in 2001. The national nonprofit group Surface Transportation Policy Partnership explains the loophole here.

What's our point (besides highlighting a need to close this policy loophole)? The point is we're in a jam because the U.S. lacks accountability and a clear road map for its transportation policy, as nationally syndicated columnist Neil Peirce observed back in 2004 when the last major surface transportation bill (SAFETEA-LU) was being considered in Congress.

A record 5,000 earmarks-such as $400 million for two bridges in Alaska (not coincidentally home state of Rep. Don Young, then-chair of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee)-are hogging close to 40 percent of federal surface transportation aid. Worse yet, the U.S. is spending $50 billion annually on transportation without anyone kicking the tires-in other words, we don't know how it's going to perform because no measurable goals are set.

"Actually, there are many reasons to have a strong federal transportation program," Peirce writes, "to learn and advance on road efficiency, safety standards, water and land protections, energy conservation, smarter land use to relieve traffic demand, road-rail-bus intermodal facilities, and alternative transportation initiatives ranging from ferries to bicycling to walking."

Federal transportation policy is often under the radar, dominated in the national dialog by education, health care and the war in Iraq. But, it's the single largest influencer over how we settle the land. A deeper understanding of how our tax dollars are distributed at the federal, state and local level will help shine a light on a system slanted toward highway building.

These satellite images of sprawl in the Western Reserve may help illustrate the cause and effect of building highways and driving development away from metropolitan areas. Highways and interchanges have outpaced job and population growth in Northeast Ohio, succeeding only in making vast tracts of farmland and green space available for low-density development.

Sprawl is once again at the center of regional debate, this time over a proposed I-90 interchange for exurban Avon. One of the fastest growing communities in the region, Avon has drawn two-thirds of its population boom from Cuyahoga County where population has been sliding.

"Regional dispersion of development has reached such a severe point that focused discussion is called for," First Suburbs Consortium Chairman Kenneth Montlack wrote to NOACA recently. "It is the big picture that concerns us. The Avons and townships in the adjacent counties have hundreds of thousands of acres of farmland ready for development, all within short or modest distance of existing interchanges. The 'pulling power' of that land and those interchanges, coupled with the fact that NOACA has no authority over local land-use decisions, means that the agency's goals and principals are largely impractical."

NOACA and Northeast Ohio could use some help from the state.

In California, Gov. Schwarzenegger's recent executive order to address global warming has emboldened those trying to put the brakes on this type of unsustainable transportation spending. The "Governator" set a target, and a coalition of business and government leaders throughout the state took the initiative to craft a Sustainable Transportation Action Plan.

Part of California's vision is to reduce petro-fuel use at least 15 percent below 2003 levels by 2020, or by 15 billion gallons.

To reach these lofty goals, the study pinpoints three broad approaches:

  • Diversifying the state's fuel supply
  • Improving vehicular efficiency
  • Reducing the need to drive

Just as highway funding is a policy step-child, this last bullet-dealing with the demand side of transportation (aka sprawl-induced highway traffic)-to reduce "vehicle miles traveled" often takes a back seat to alternative fuels. But, it's a big reason to pay attention to the recommendations of the California plan. Its Smart Communities program would upgrade the state's transportation models so that the cost savings associated with energy-efficient and climate-friendly land-use planning can be fully realized. Read more about the Sustainable Transportation Action Plan here .

GreenCityBlueLake supports the argument for demand-side management, adding that a downtown housing strategy supported by ODOT will relieve the need for much of the added Innerbelt infrastructure. Read our latest letter to ODOT, available for download here, which is our official response to the call for public comment on the Innerbelt Project's Draft Environmental Statement (due March 5, 2007).

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