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Why ODOT Task Force report disappoints, and what to do about it

 |  01/27/09 @ 4:10pm

David Beach's analysis of the report of "Ohio's 21st Century Transportation Priorities Task Force" is excellent. I agree with him entirely.

I strongly urge everyone to read the report. You can download it here (its 58 pages includes lots of pictures and charts and graphs).

This report is hugely important in the debate about what our transportation system should be. And you can't fully understand the debate, or any analysis of it, without reading the report.

David hit the nail on the head in explaining why the Task Force report is so disappointing when he writes:

[W]hile it contains nice language about creating a more multi-modal transportation system, it never defines what success would be like. What is the target for percent of trips made by transit or bike? How much can driving be reduced by programs for urban revitalization and compact land use? How much freight can be shifted from trucks to rail? And what is the strategy for producing the desired results?

The only time the report gets specific and makes concrete recommendations is when it gets to the issue of raising taxes. This tells me that the whole purpose for convening the Task Force was to create, for public purposes, the image of a "broad-based statewide transportation coalition" that supports a huge task increase.

My suspicion is borne out by the fact that Transportation Matters-the new organization formed with ODOT's blessing and dominated by contractors and engineers and planners and consultants-had a press release ready and waiting to go out immediately after the Task Force report was published.

The shortcomings in the Task Force report are demonstrated by two things:

First, although the Task Force report recommends an integrated multimodal system of transportation, the report refuses to endorse or commit to a policy and practice of Complete Streets. Complete Streets is the ONLY way to integrate bicycling and walking (and transit) into the transportation mainstream and without a commitment to Complete Streets all the "nice language" in the report lacks any credibility.

Second, the bottom line of the report (at page 47) is to recommend maintaining the constitutional restriction on the current $.28 cent per gallon gas tax for highway and bridges only-while recommending that it be indexed to increase with inflation-and to propose that voters be presented with a constitutional amendment for a new, separate fixed $.13 cent per gallon gas tax for ANY transportation purpose including highways and bridges and alternative modes of transportation.

Transportation Matters, in its January 6th press release, calls this "big" and "bold."

We're in the midst of multiple crises-an energy crisis, an economic crisis, a health crisis, a global warming/climate change crisis, a pollution crisis, and a transportation crisis involving the cost of gas, lack of mobility, access, and affordability, and lack of sustainability-that call for a "sea change" in our transportation system.

The National Surface Transportation Policy and Revenue Study Commission's report, although it has many shortcomings, recognizes (at page 52) that all our crises require "a sea change in the way surface transportation is planned, funded, and delivered." The bi-partisan Study Commission declared (at page 7) that "The American people can no longer tolerate more 'business as usual' in the surface transportation arena."

One of the key recommendations of the Study Commission is that transportation funding and planning be substantially restructured, essentially doing away with all the funding "silos" that now exist and replacing them with performance standards for meeting a number of goals of national interest including energy efficiency, improving the environment, increasing connectivity, and relieving congestion.

Indeed, Transportation Matters purports to support "mode neutrality." But by endorsing retaining the constitutional restriction on using the gas tax for highways and bridges and indexing that tax for inflation and by proposing to let voters decide whether or not to impose a new, smaller fixed tax for any transportation purpose including highways and bridges, the Transportation Matters coalition shows that it does not really believe in "mode neutrality" or in fundamentally reforming our dysfunctional transportation system, but only in creating whatever window dressing is necessary to get funding to keep doing "business as usual."

Last September the Brookings Institution and Greater Ohio held a conference on "Restoring Our Prosperity: The State Role in Revitalizing Ohio's Core Communities." A key component of the report presented there was "to catalyze transformative infrastructure initiatives" by "plac[ing] state transportation programs and policies in the service of regional economic growth and prosperity." The Brookings' Metropolitan Policy Program last June published a comprehensive framework for transportation reform in "A Bridge to Somewhere: Rethinking American Transportation for the 21st Century" which can be found here. In this paper, Brookings' transportation expert Robert Puentes states on page 73:

[W]e should not continue to pour more money into a dysfunctional system before serious attempts at significant policy reform... It is impossible to start with a funding solution or what the optimal level of investment should be when there is no agreement about what the federal role should be, what problems we are trying to solve, or what questions we are trying to answer. Indeed, although the NSTPRSC did call clearly and specifically for an increase in the fuel tax, they also maintained that adding revenues to the program in its current form would "not be acceptable." We concur.

In a summary of his proposals for transportation reform for the National Journal Online here, Puentes says: "[Metropolitan areas] need a broad strategy of "modality neutrality" that establishes equal treatment of highway, transit, and non-motorized projects."

The Task Force report, especially its funding proposals, show that ODOT and the rest of the transportation establishment have not yet accepted the fact that we need a paradigmatic mode shift; they're still wedded to the same old dysfunctional transportation system.

Voters, I believe, will see through the Task Force report and will not support increasing the gas tax. Until ODOT and the Governor propose a "grand bargain" to fundamentally reform our transportation system and create a major mode shift to bicycling, walking, and transit and rail the public will not throw more money after bad.

A national poll published by Transportation for America and contained in Rails-to-Trails Conservancy's indispensable October, 2008 report to Congress called "Active Transportation for America" (available here) shows at page 18 that the public is demanding a paradigm shift in transportation (see image at right).

David, I agree with you that: "Now is the time to keep up the pressure on ODOT and the Governor to adopt such changes - and develop a truly sustainable transportation system for the 21st century."

The problem is that the forces of the status quo are organized in the form of Transportation Matters. The forces of transportation reform are not yet organized. We need to get organized and soon; not only to push ODOT and the Governor to accept real reform here in Ohio but to develop a strategy to push for reform at the national level by supporting the Transportation for America coalition's platform, which can be seen on their website here.

I believe our strategy both here in Ohio and at the national level should be fourfold:

1. Get a strong Complete Streets policy enacted into law;

2. Achieve "modal neutrality" in funding for transportation, including the removal of the constitutional restriction on the dedication of Ohio's gas tax for highways and bridges; and

3. Insist on the enactment into law of a project selection formula for strongly favoring transportation projects that achieve the following:

  • reduction in VMT
  • maximizing energy efficiency
  • reduction in greenhouse gas emissions
  • reduction in air pollution
  • promotion of compact, efficient land use
  • enhancement of economic development

4. Push for performance standards and strong accountability.

I believe that these measures would-and should-strongly favor bicycling, walking, and mass transit and rail.

Where and when can we, the transportation reform movement, meet?

John Gideon Bike, Walk Ohio!

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