SURFACE REFLECTIONS BY LAWRENCE H KAUFMAN: WHY A NATIONAL TRANSPORTATION POLICY IS IMPORTANT

SURFACE REFLECTIONS BY LAWRENCE H KAUFMAN: WHY A NATIONAL TRANSPORTATION POLICY IS IMPORTANT

The transportation world, if not the entire United States, still is waiting for a national transportation policy statement, some 34 years after the Department of Transportation was created with a mandate to develop one. This is far more than just a bureaucratic exercise. If the DOT ever produces such a policy, it will help Congress establish improved priorities for public spending on transportation. It also will allow the country to see how the current priorities skew spending and how various modes of transportation are subsidized by taxpayers at large and by competing modes.

The first few secretaries of transportation struggled mightily to produce a national transportation policy. All failed. John A. Volpe, the second secretary, produced a document that was labeled a national transportation policy, but it had been so watered down by the Nixon White House Office of Management and Budget that the diluted document didn't even receive the courtesy of a hearing when it arrived at Capitol Hill.More recent holders of the office seem to have been unaware of the mandate and didn't even try to develop a policy.

Why is this important? Congress doesn't look at transportation in a unified way. It assigns responsibility for various modes to different committees. Highway spending is considered and allocated as though it were the only form of transportation. The same goes for airport and airways spending, for port and harbor spending, for river navigation spending and for rail spending.

Thanks to the Federal Aid Highway Act and Highway Revenue Act of 1956, highways have an assured funding from a series of user taxes imposed on motorists and truckers. These taxes have been increased over the years, making sure that highways received most, if not all, the money they needed. Airports and airways, similarly, have an assured funding source in the ticket and air waybill taxes paid by travelers and freight shippers.

Other modes that do not have assured (trust-funded) sources either must rely on annual appropriations or do without. Obviously, it's harder to obtain funding in competition with other societal needs than it is to get appropriations out of a trust fund earmarked for the purpose.

That is a lousy way to set priorities. The U.S. needs all modes of transportation and a solid infrastructure for each. The lack of assured funding should not be a measure of worthiness.

I recall, back in 1971, the Nixon Administration made a half-hearted attempt to overcome some of the skewed spending priorities by asking for some money from the highway trust fund to be allocated to mass transit spending. The chairman of the then House Public Works Committee called a hearing at which he stated such a 'raid' on the trust fund would never happen, but that he was giving Secretary Volpe an opportunity to make the Administration's case out of a sense of fair play. Some fair play!

Anyone who travels in urban congestion knows that funding of mass transportation is good public policy. In city after city, when it has been properly funded and improved, mass transit has found Americans willing to park their automobiles and use it.

Despite the billions in annual user taxes collected for highways, public policy still is distorted. Every independent study over the past half century has found that the heaviest trucks effectively are subsidized by other highway users.

Railroads, on the other hand, are paying a $.4.3 per gallon tax on diesel fuel for deficit reduction in an era with no deficits. Their tax payments go to the Treasury general fund, while a similar $.4.3 cent tax on truck fuel goes directly to the highway trust fund.

This skewing not only subsidizes motor carriers at the expense of competing railroads, it subsidizes motor carrier customers at the expense of rail customers. This has ramifications far beyond transportation. It affects plant location decisions, since businesses can more easily choose to site facilities without rail access and not pay an operating penalty. It affects congestion throughout the nation, not just in urban areas.

For example, Interstate Highway 81 through the Shenandoah Valley is jammed with big rig truckers. Virginia and neighboring states are considering adding two lanes to the existing four at a cost of several billions of dollars. The same capacity could be provided on the parallel tracks of the Norfolk Southern for considerably less money, but it's going to be a very hard sell to get funding for the sensible alternative.

Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta knows that America cannot pave over the entire country. He told his confirmation hearing that: 'Congestion and inefficiency in transportation are not just inconvenient and aggravating -- though they certainly are that -- but they are also a tax that burdens every business and every individual. We have to find ways to lighten that load.'

Mineta may be the country's best opportunity for a national transportation policy. His age -- 69 -- and his politics -- he's the lone Democrat in a Republican administration -- give him independence that most of his predecessors lacked. His knowledge -- he spent two decades in Congress and served on committees that dealt with transportation issues -- give him the ability to rise to the occasion.

And help move U.S. transportation forward.