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Moving Past Gridlock

At Brookings’ Global Metro Summit earlier this month in Chicago, Bruce Katz called on the federal government to act with purpose and intent to get the nation back on track. And despite the conventional wisdom that it is fundamentally broken — and broke — there are several key areas where Washington needs to act. In particular, transportation is an important part of the nation’s recovery efforts in both the short term (to create and retain jobs) and the long term (to enable the nation to transition to a new economy driven by exports, powered by low carbon, fueled by innovation, and rich with opportunity.)

Yet despite notable achievements over the past two years — especially the innovations at the U.S. Department of Transportation — the much-needed multi-year authorization of the federal transportation law is more than a year overdue despite repeated calls from political, civic, and business leaders for a robust, performance-based system. This has enormous implications for the health of our metropolitan environment, the quality of our communities, and the vitality and prosperity of our economy.

To a large extent this is about money. Without either an increase in the federal gasoline tax or a massive subsidy from the general fund, there is not enough money to pay for the multi-year reauthorization many, including us, are desperately seeking. So given what we know about the nature of the federal transportation debate, the concern is that Congress will simply as a series of back-to-back-to-back extensions and let the current program limp along. The CBO estimates the program will only remain solvent through the end of 2012. At that time some real action will need to be taken.

But Washington shouldn’t wait until then to act. Under a deficit-neutral approach, the existing transportation law should be reauthorized, for two full years at its current funding level, to provide stability for transportation planning — including hiring workers.

This needs to be different from a straight “clean” extension that retains the existing law in its current form. Even though the level of funds should remain the same, there must be reforms in how those funds are spent. These include: federal performance measures in safety and system-wide asset management; a new partnership with metro areas that raise their own revenue that reduces bureaucracy and accelerates project delivery; better coordination of existing federal credit assistance programs such as TIFIA; and a permanent authorization of the so-called TIGER grants to encourage state and metropolitan innovation. We discuss these critical reforms in more detail here.

Make no mistake: we need to make massive investments to both fix the nation’s crumbling infrastructure and also build smartly for the future. In an ideal world, the federal government would set such a strong platform. But as Bruce Katz mentioned last week, the United States circa 2010 is not an ideal world.

Yet there is still a positive, affirmative set of critical transportation reforms that can be packaged together in the near term. These critical reforms set the stage for a truly transformative six-year bill in 2013.