Lost in the hubbub about health care last week were some remarkable comments from U.S. DOT Secretary Ray LaHood. While certainly not as weighty as many of the issues Washington is wrestling with now that Congress is back in session, they represent a sea-change in rhetoric about national transportation policy.

“[We] want to allow counties and cities to work together to develop regional plans reflecting both regional and national priorities. Then we'd fund them directly. The fact is, metro areas hold over 80 percent of the U.S. population. They're major centers of economic activity. And they account for most of the congestion and greenhouse-gas emissions.  Empowering metro regions to tackle their transportation and energy problems will move us closer to enjoying cities and suburbs that are cleaner, less congested, and less polluted than many are today.”

Why is this a big deal? Because despite Secretary LaHood’s common-sense reasoning, federal transportation policy has only haltingly recognized metros’ centrality to transportation outcomes, and continues to assign states the primary role in transportation planning and programming. Taken together, federal law only gives metropolitan areas direct control over a small share of road and bridge funding (less than 7 percent; see attached pie chart).

This uneven allocation on the highway side is starving the older portions of our metropolitan areas. This at the very time when those places are struggling with the highest need for repairs and congestion relief, can generate some of the greatest reductions in oil consumption and green house gas emissions, and are ultimately central to economic prosperity and growth in this nation. Washington should heed the secretary’s call.