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Time to stop stalling a national conversation about transportation

In Congress, members of both parties are trying to figure out how to fix the nation’s transportation funding problem. What they need to remember, though, is that funding is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the problems with our transportation system.

Crashes on our roads injure 3.8 million people a year, result in more than 35,000 fatalities, and inflict an annual societal cost of $871 billion. Our current transportation system leaves little space for healthy activities like biking and walking, and enables a sprawl-driven model of development that is fiscally unsustainable for our communities.

Diane Brown, executive director of the Arizona PIRG Education Fund

Diane Brown, executive director of the Arizona PIRG Education Fund

To make matters even worse, millions endure paralyzing traffic congestion, even as we spend more of our money on transportation than any household expense other than housing. Meanwhile, our transportation system often leaves a large chunk of the population – the young, the low-income, the old and the disabled – either ill-served or not served at all.

The American people, including many Arizonans, get this. Individuals are seeking options to avoid the soul-crushing commutes, gridlock and the pain we all too often experience at the pump. Young people are making the loudest statements – driving less, seeking out bikeable and walkable neighborhoods, and pursuing better transportation choices.

Municipalities are trying to respond. Local governments recognize that, to thrive in the 21st century, they need to accommodate more vibrant and more sustainable lifestyles. The sense of “you snooze, you lose” urgency is leading to smart, innovative ideas.

Given these realities, one would think that federal and state transportation policies would be laser focused on expanding access to transportation options that are good for our pocketbooks and our health, as well as on maintaining the existing roads, bridges and transit networks on which many of us depend.

Yet, despite the fact that Americans drive less on average as we did in 1997, we still spend a disproportionate amount of money on new and expanded highways. Who is paying for those new highways? Increasingly, it’s not just those that drive but all taxpayers. Shifting the highway funding burden back to drivers by increasing the gas tax has not proven popular. Neither have alternative fees such as tolls and per-mile charges. At the local and state levels, the picture is a little bit different – here, taxpayers often express the willingness to pay for transportation improvements, especially if they know and like what they’ll be getting in return.

So where do we go from here? The real solution doesn’t fit into a sound bite nor does it fit into any particular ideology. It begins with a national conversation about our transportation needs, goals and priorities – a conversation that we haven’t had in a serious way in decades. We will almost certainly need to raise (and possibly to spend) more money than we do now, if for nothing else than to preserve our existing assets and make long-overdue investments in transit, passenger rail, and bikeable and walkable communities. But we can’t afford to build everything anyone might want, which is why rigorous criteria for prioritizing investments is needed, as is a vigilant open-mindedness about new technologies and tools that can improve transportation outcomes at lower costs.

Tony Dutzik, senior policy analyst at Frontier Group

Tony Dutzik, senior policy analyst at Frontier Group

The good news, if you can call it that, is the brokenness of our national transportation policy is increasingly recognized by people across the political spectrum. Not everyone has the same diagnosis or recommendations for treatment, of course, but the opportunity for full and creative debate about our transportation needs and priorities has never been greater. Let’s hope that federal policymakers soon provide opportunities for that long-overdue discussion to take place.

In the meantime, it is worth noting that here in Arizona these conversations are not only occurring but may soon lead to more transportation options. After months of deliberation, a Citizens Commission, led by former U.S. Secretary of Transportation Mary Peters and comprised of diverse business and community interests, presented recommendations to improve transportation choices in our state’s largest city to the Phoenix City Council. As a result, this August Phoenix voters will have the opportunity to vote in favor of vital transportation investments.

After years of analysis and public meetings, ADOT is getting closer to releasing the Environmental Impact Statement for Phoenix-Tucson passenger rail, another important step toward expanding transportation choices, creating jobs and benefiting our state’s economy. And municipalities across the state are discussing improvements they can implement, such as making their communities more bikeable and walkable.

Across the state, Arizonans are having the hard but necessary debates about the transportation system we need to lay the path to a better future. In this instance, the federal government should follow Arizona’s lead.

Diane E. Brown is the executive director of the Arizona PIRG Education Fund, an organization that conducts research and education in the public interest. Tony Dutzik is senior policy analyst at Frontier Group, a nonprofit  public policy think tank.

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