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Transportation Lessons from the Stimulus

Yesterday, Vice President Joe Biden trumpeted and defended the $787 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) by ticking off progress made, goals achieved, and milestones met.

In addition to these quantifications, the vice president talked about "ancillary benefits" such as improving short-term coordination among federal departments, and long-lasting enhancements in the competence of government.

But there was another benefit he didn't mention: the unique opportunity for the stimulus package to shine a bright light on other existing areas of domestic policy. One area is surface transportation.

The vice president was right to point out that many people think the stimulus package "was $787 billion for highway projects."

No wonder. One would be hard-pressed to drive around the country over the past summer and not notice the highway signs touting the federal money that made a particular highway improvement possible.

What they may not know was that the federal government actually had little to no role in choosing, influencing, or guiding how highway projects get picked. The vice president showed his frustration about this when he told a story about his lack of ability to settle a dispute between a governor and big city mayor over how best to allocate highway dollars within a particular state.

The fact is that the U.S. code neuters the federal role in the federal transportation program and specifically says that the appropriation of highway funds "shall in no way infringe on the sovereign rights of the states to determine which projects shall be federally financed."

Now, one certainly does not want the federal government to have the sole role in picking individual highway projects.

But with an appropriate framework and clearly articulated goals and objectives (e.g., economic competitiveness, energy security, safety, accessibility), Washington can be assured that federal dollars are spent wisely. It should be up to the states and metropolitan areas to demonstrate how they will meet or exceed those goals--and they should be held accountable for doing so.

The goals of ARRA are straightforward: preserve and create jobs, promote economic recovery, etc. Two special transportation programs with their roots in the recovery package (TIGER grants, and the high speed rail program) connect those goals with transportation spending.

But we must not miss the chance to learn from this effort and extend those critical reforms to the half-trillion dollar federal transportation law being discussed in Congress right now.