Full-scale transportation reform in the United States does not seem to be high on anyone’s agenda. But what happens in the meantime may provide signals about where the program could be going.

When it finally arrives, the next surface transportation bill will have been a long time in the making. The Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act: A Legacy for Users (SAFETEA-LU), the bill that authorized a five-year, $286 billion federal surface transportation program, expired last September. Lawmakers bought themselves a reprieve by extending the bill to the end of this year and funding it at a level likely to last through mid-2013. The administration appears to be using the time to experiment with new approaches.

For years before the clock ticked down on SAFETEA-LU, policy makers and advocates have grappled with what should replace it. Though there is broad agreement that SAFETEA-LU is less than perfect, there is not much consensus on how to make the federal transportation program work better or on how big it should be. And there seems to be little political appetite in Congress or the Obama administration for a pitched battle over transportation. As a result, a major reform effort may be unlikely for the next few years, or longer. Where does a new bill stand, and what is happening in the meantime?

The most important effort in Congress to date has been the draft bill, released in June 2009, prepared by Rep. James Oberstar (D-MN), chair of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. The bill would double the size of the transportation program, but does not identify where additional money would come from. In the Senate, Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA), chair of the Environment and Public Works Committee, has been holding hearings to help formulate a bill. Of course, with things moving so slowly, what happens in the midterm elections in November could have a major impact on the shape of the legislation.

On the administration side, President Obama’s team has played its hand close to its vest. The White House has promised a set of principles for transportation reform, but has not yet issued them. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has been clear about one thing, though: with the economy still on shaky ground, the administration does not support a gasoline tax increase. Instead, the administration seems to be focusing on innovatively using one-time bursts of funding and other resources, such as the following:

The $1.5 billion Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) grant program—made possible by the 2009 stimulus bill—and its $600 million successor, TIGER II, are rewarding cross-sector and multipartner transportation projects. Those receiving first-round awards announced in February included Moynihan Station in New York City and streetcars in Dallas, Tucson, and New Orleans. TIGER II applications were due in late August.

High-speed rail.
In January, the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) awarded $8 billion in 2009 stimulus funding on a competitive basis to rail projects around the country, providing a boost to efforts already underway in Florida and California to build true high-speed rail, and in the Midwest to address vexing bottlenecks. Federal rail investments are continuing, with DOT announcing this summer that additional grant funding of $2.3 billion is available, thanks to fiscal year 2010 appropriations. 

Sustainability challenge grants.
In late June, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) made a long-anticipated announcement that $100 million is available to regions for planning activities in support of sustainable growth, with grant applications due in late August.

Of course, most of the billions in federal transportation dollars continue to flow in the same old ways. But these programs— and a number of other smaller grant programs put together jointly by HUD, DOT, and the Environmental Protection Agency under the umbrella of the federal livability initiative—look a little like trial balloons launched to help federal government agencies learn how to make investments in more efficient, sustainable, and performance-oriented ways, to connect transportation and land use, and to work together better. Though small, they are worth watching. They will help set the stage for more comprehensive transportation reform, whenever it finally happens.