Better Transportation Grants

The Obama administration’s relatively modest high-speed passenger rail funding commitments have attracted a lot of discussion because I think it basically plays as a culture war issue. But the FY 2012 Transportation budget offers a couple of ideas that I think are probably more significant, because they entail tying medium-sized federal grants to changes in state policy. That means they could end up leveraging much more money than is actually spent. Here’s one idea that’s primarily focused on improved safety:

Provides “Transportation Leadership Awards” to Drive State Reform. The Administration’s six-year reauthorization plan would dedicate nearly $32 billion for a competitive grant program designed to create incentives for State and local partners to adopt critical reforms in a variety of areas, including safety, livability, and demand management. Federally-inspired safety reforms, such as seat belt and drunk-driving laws, saved thousands of American lives and avoided billions in property losses. This initiative will seek to repeat the successes of the past across the complete spectrum of transportation policy priorities. The Department will work with States and localities to set ambitious goals in different areas—for example, passing measures to prevent distracted driving (safety) or modifying transportation plans to include mass transit, bike, and pedestrian options (livability)—and to tie resources to goal-achievement.

This is important. Automobile accidents are a major cause of poor health outcomes (up to and including death) in the United States and it’s considerably more cost effective to spend money on improving safety than to spend the money on patching people up after they’ve been in an accident. Even if it cost more to prevent accidents than to provide health care (which it doesn’t), you’d obviously strongly prefer to avoid the pain and suffering in the first place.

Another idea is to fix the scandalous tendency of our current system to encourage people to build new roads even while existing roads are starved of maintenance:

Adopts a “Fix-It-First” Approach for Highway and Transit Grants. Key elements of the Nation’s surface transportation infrastructure—our highways, bridges, and transit assets—are not up to standards. At the same time, States and localities have incentives to emphasize new investments over improving the condition of the existing infrastructure. The Administration’s reauthorization proposal will underscore the importance of preserving and improving existing assets, encouraging its government and industry partners to make optimal use of current capacity, and minimizing life-cycle costs through sound asset management principles. Accountability is a key element of this system: States and localities will be required to report on highway condition and performance measures.

This is a great idea. The way we do things now is environmentally destructive and also extremely wasteful of the country’s existing capital stock.

My pet idea in this space is that strong preference should be given in infrastructure funding to states and localities that are willing to re-zone in favor of higher density. Basically if your town or neighborhood wants better infrastructure just to serve its existing citizens, it ought to pay for that infrastructure itself. The country should “win the future” by investing its money in places that are eager to have higher populations in the future than they have at present. That idea might or might not fit under the “livability” heading DOT’s currently offering, but it sort of cuts across the DOT and HUD policy spaces.