Wednesday, March 13 2013 @ 12:26 PM UTC
Contributed by: B' Spokes
By Klaus Philipsen, Community Architect
ISTEA was the landmark legislation that tried to put transportation planning and funding on a much sounder footing:
- It recognized that transportation policy should be more about moving people and less about moving cars. To this end it stressed that it was supposed to be "mode blind" and "intermodal".
- It recognized that there can be efficient and inefficient ways to move people and so it stressed efficiency.
- It recognized that traffic doesn't know jurisdictional boundaries and needs to be approached regionally. So the law required Metropolitan Planning organizations (MPOs).
- The law tried to eradicate unwarranted "wish list" projects by requiring "Major Investment Studies".
- The law understood that car focused transportation has environmental impacts and mandated linkage to the Clean Air Act. It required transportation projects to show that they did not worsen air quality in "non-attainment areas" or they couldn't be funded.
- One of the most enlightened elements of the law was the objective to address not only the supply of transportation infrastructure but also the demand by requiring "demand management" strategies
- One of the most effective demand reduction strategies is a change in land use patterns and ISTEA clearly highlighted the link between land use and transportation.
- Finally, the Act recognized that outcomes need to be measures and included specific metrics to do that, for example VMT (Vehicle Miles Traveled).
In short, the law was a dream for fiscal conservatives and for enlightened planners alike: To the former for its aspirations towards efficiency, to the latter for the goal of solving transportation, air quality and land use problems rather than just building stuff. But, with so many good intentions, one can easily guess that not all went by the plan. Reality took a different route.(For Robert Fuentes' of Brookings assessment of ISTEA read here
I remember ISTEA well. I had just been appointed to a Maryland State Planning Commission Committee (resulting from the 1992 Maryland Growth and Resource Protection Act, an early smart growth legislation). At the same time, highly motivated by the new law I started consulting with the Baltimore Metropolitan Council
(BMC) which was the newly anointed regional MPO. I co-authored a manual for public involvement under ISTEA. Most interesting, though, was a pilot project in which the six member jurisdictions of the MPO dealt with the land use-transportation nexus: They modeled the impacts land use changes would have on transportation performance.
I soon learned first hand that provincial interest in project funding would easily trump any effort of finding a rational planning approach. Carroll County, for example, found it much more important to get its own freeway ("we are the only county in the MPO that doesn't have one") than protecting its open spaces from development. The other counties with rural areas, Anne Arundel County, Harford County and even Howard County were not very enthusiastic about shifting growth towards existing infrastructure either. When the modeling study clearly showed that 10% growth reallocation made traffic perform better than the billions of anticipated transportation projects, the pilot project became a hot potato. Chairman Stoney Frailey had to promise the participating counties that this study result would not become public. And so it happened, the study was terminated and remained unpublished.
With the intent of ISTEA in plain view "work-arounds" and "pseudo compliance" began to proliferate. What surprise, then, that in spite of ISTEA and all the following transportation bills since then, the reality of how transport projects come about remained the same to this day: In Maryland a "road tour" organized by the State Highway Administration (SHA) in which local politicians and administrators tell the agency which projects they want. And precisely those projects wind up in the Consolidated Transportation Program
(CTP). Non attainment? No problem, the region will get waivers and extensions. Major investment study? Sure, it will show how well the dream project will perform. Intermodal? Efficient? Conforming with equity and social justice? Paper after paper will be written. A cottage industry of consultants and administrative employees knows precisely how to provide all the required reports. The projects remained the same, the justifications changed.In this manner Maryland built the Inter County Connector
and doubled the lane capacity of I-95 north of Baltimore
to name just the two most expensive road projects that a rigorous application of the ISTEA metrics should have prevented. Meanwhile construction for new transit projects such as the Red and Purple Lines remain unfunded.
Maybe Congress should learn from the Disabilities Act when it considers again how it wants to make transportation investments more effective. Mobility and mode choices as civil rights? This isn't as far fetched as it may sound considering that by far more than half of the US population doesn't have access to cars because of age, disability, poverty or choice. Consider that the age pyramid will rapidly increase that portion of the population even further. Consider that fossil fuel is powering almost all of our mobility options. Given that climate change, increased demand and rising cost will make that source less and less desirable, wouldn't it behoove us well to consider better land use that reduces demand for trips? Or a transit option for everyone? Walk and bike options for shorter trips in cities, towns and villages? Or proof that our scarce dollars really improve mobility and have the largest possible benefit?
These questions track the exact issues ISTEA tried to address. As frustrating as it is, we cannot give up on those goals. In spite of the "law of unintended consequences" the alternative, continued waste and inefficiency is not only too frightening, it is beyond our means.