Few things are closer to a politician's heart than money to build roads and bridges. Witness the passions in Congress over the current reauthorization of the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act, known by the acronym ISTEA (pronounced "ice tea").
This is the legislation by which billions of dollars in federal fuel taxes are redistributed to the states each year for transportation projects. And the scramble for funds is intense.
Right now, most congressional attention is riveted on the formula by which states get their share of road building funds. But this reauthorization is about much more than that.
Passed in 1991, ISTEA marked a departure from past federal transportation legislation. By mandating new categories for spending, it broadened the legislation's scope beyond highways and mass transit. ISTEA included a Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality program (CMAQ). It also embraced an "enhancements" program that let states and localities spend some of their redistributed dollars on bike lanes, walking trails, and even restoration of historic train stations. These added features brought into the transportation policy forum a whole new set of interests, from local governments to cyclist organizations.
So along with the predictable feeding frenzy among politicians determined to get their state's fair share, this year the reauthorization tussle includes lobbyists determined to maintain their new share of the transportation pie, or win back their old share.
Should ISTEA's broadened transportation agenda be preserved? In general, bringing a wider range of voices into federal transportation policymaking is a good idea. Environmental concerns should be a central consideration. CMAQ dollars for carpool programs, switches to alternative-fuel buses, or traffic flow improvements are well spent. Localities that want to emphasize alternative means of travel (like bicycles) should be able to pursue such options, as well.
That doesn't imply a major shift away from highways. Most of the $20 billion to $30 billion that will be spent yearly on transportation projects will still go to roads and bridges. The leading bill in the Senate, for instance, would devote to those priorities $20.6 billion of its $22.2 billion proposed for 1998. This is simply pragmatism, since most Americans rely on cars and trucks and on safe roadways to operate them.
Mass transit, too, will get its share, though a small share, reflecting its still unrealized promise in American society.
Highway user advocates have complained that some of the "enhancements" projects have gone too far afield from transportation needs. Stricter guidelines for spending that small pot of money would be useful. The Senate reauthorization, which just cleared committee, includes more efficient procedures for approving local and "enhancement" projects. The Senate's bill - unlike the House's - also manages to keep its overall spending within the balanced budget agreement.
ISTEA represented an evolutionary step in transportation policy, and we hope the evolution continues. Eventually, the country may even arrive at a better way of setting transportation policy and spending the country's transportation dollar than a political free-for-all every time reauthorization comes around.