On March 14, the U.S. Senate approved by a 74-22 vote key transportation legislation entitled “Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century,” or MAP-21. Twenty-two Republicans joined Democrats on the final vote for passage. ULI is encouraged at the bi-partisan support for this bill, because it signals the importance of a strong transportation policy for America.

As a two-year, $109 billion measure, MAP 21 does not have the longer reach of previous transportation bills, which have typically authorized spending for five or six years. Senate bill 1813 proposes no significant additional funding, instead maintaining existing spending levels, adjusted for inflation. Is this short- term bill with little new spending a game changer? Not really, but let’s take the legislation for what it is – a game starter.

Keeping its “no earmark” pledge, the Senate has crafted a bill that consolidates programs, streamlines project delivery, and makes numerous other important changes – some big, some small – to the way the federal government handles building and maintaining the country’s transportation networks. Many of these changes, if enacted, point to a future where the transportation system reflects disciplined investment, mitigates the impact of volatile oil prices, and addresses environmental sustainability, while providing improved accessibility for the nation’s citizens.

  • Support for Robust Networks — Today’s metropolitan economies, tied to global trade and service industries, thrive because of innovation and productivity increases that are delivered by interconnected networks. By maintaining federal support for efficient and safe movement by car, rail, bus, bicycle, and on foot, and renewing the emphasis on freight movement via highways, rail, and ports, MAP-21 recognizes the national interest in robust transportation networks.
  • National Objectives and Performance Measures— The bill brings more modern capital-investment and asset-management techniques to a federal program long dominated by a “build, build, build” ethos. MAP-21 introduces national objectives detailing what people and businesses should expect from surface transportation: reduced travel times and a system that is reliable, safe, efficient, and both environmentally and budget conscious.
  • Connection to Land Use—MAP-21’s national objectives also speak to a key fact that is seldom emphasized in federal transportation legislation— that the speed, cost, and efficiency of transportation systems are connected to responsible planning for land use and sustainable development. For example, encouraging mixed use, transit-oriented development (TOD) is explicitly cited among the transit program’s goals, and a pilot program is included to nurture TOD planning.

Other parts of the bill reflect ongoing dilemmas, particularly in regard to the private sector’s role in transportation funding. For instance, MAP-21 includes a nearly ten-fold boost in the Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act loan and loan guarantee program, designed in part to encourage private investment. However, it penalizes states that move forward on some types of deals with the private sector, such as the privatization of the Chicago Skyway or the Indiana Toll Road. There are also tax and bond measures that may raise the cost of private sector participation. Clearly, more work is needed to craft a private investment strategy—or even to expand the use of tolls—in a way that meets the public’s concerns about accountability, fairness, and transparency.

In addition to continuing to develop public/private partnerships, political leaders will eventually need to confront the issue of increased funding. Federal spending on surface transportation depends, for the most part, on taxes on motor fuels sequestered in the Highway Trust Fund. Revenues from the gas tax, which hasn’t been raised since 1993, do not—and will not—keep up with inflation nor growing infrastructure backlogs; improved vehicle fuel efficiency and drops in driving per capita only make the funding situation more challenging.

As a whole, MAP-21, and the bipartisan spirit in which it was passed, represents progress. Now, it is up to the House of Representatives to keep the momentum going. MAP-21 has helped place transportation on the front burner. Let’s keep it there.